Ready to stroll down quality street - at last

September 25, 1998

The new quality regime for higher education is almost with us. The Quality Assurance Agency and its key customers, the higher education funding councils, including the Scottish funding council, which has previously been most resistant to its plans, are only details away from agreeing on the quality framework for United Kingdom higher education. Something could still go wrong, but all concerned seem to think that agreement is close.

As QAA chief executive John Randall sees it (front page), a new system is needed in part because of university expansion. Non-graduate employers, for example, need to know what to expect when they interview graduates for jobs, even in areas where there is not a certifying professional body.

The new proposals, as Mr Randall describes them, are designed to utilise universities' internal quality systems to the full. But whether the new arrangements will reduce the bureaucratic load on institutions remains to be seen.

From the point of view of individual academics it is likely that the key personalities in the new system - the academic reviewers carrying out subject-based work - will be a problem area until the system settles down. Last week Mr Randall criticised the established lawyers who decided to devote the twilight of their careers to ill-informed educational activism in the Law Society. The engineering institutions have had trouble getting companies to release professionals for the lengthy periods it takes to certify courses thoroughly, and in all subjects there is increased unwillingness to take on the role of external examiner.

The new reviewers will be asked to look at academic standards, student support, library resources and a range of other criteria beyond the current external examiner role. Finding people to do this, at a cost that is bearable for the higher education system overall, will be the biggest practical issue facing the new proposals.

Next in the list of problems comes relations between the QAA and the world of teacher training. Mr Randall seems to agree with his Teacher Training Agency counterpart Anthea Millett (page 18) on one thing: the curse of league tables. But in the past the TTA has criticised the QAA's proposed system as being too soft, a view with which until recently some funding council officials seemed to agree. Now the funding councils are happier with the QAA, and the QAA seems likely to reach an agreement to oversee quality in courses funded by the National Health Service. Does teacher training really still need its own quality system?

Another possible danger area is the risk of the QAA's criteria discouraging academic enterprise. Mr Randall has said that institutions that seem to bear extra risk will be looked at especially closely. Universities that are seen to be dangerously innovative will have to reckon with the scope for attracting extra QAA attention. One criterion the QAA will regard as a danger sign is institutional complexity, although it is a safe bet that the knotty Oxbridge college structure will not be regarded as a sign of potential trouble. Another is collaborative provision, in other words franchising. Since franchising via universities is to continue (page 4), rather than being abolished in favour of direct funding council provision as Dearing recommended, this will be a lively source of business for reviewers.

In the longer term, even the wide-ranging proposals now under consideration will not last for ever. This week's calls from Baroness Perry and others for colleges to cut loose from state funding may never be realised (page 4). But if they were, potential students would want more reassurance, not less, about the quality of the degree their hefty fees were paying for.

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