In spelling out its beliefs, the QAA is underlining its commitment to higher education, says Peter Williams
A key indicator of a mature democracy is the extent to which higher education is granted the privilege of freedom from state control.
One of the more striking developments in European higher education in recent years has been the increased responsibility and autonomy granted to universities that were previously organs of the state.
This freeing of the academy in Europe has not, of course, been unconditional. Quality assurance agencies have sprung up in nearly all signatory countries of the Bologna Declaration, a recognition of the importance of safeguarding the public interest and of the need for public confidence in the quality and standards of tertiary education and its qualifications.
In the UK, oddly, the movement seems to have been mostly in the opposite direction. Higher education is progressing towards state control, with only a limited say for universities and colleges in the direction of travel.
This may be an appropriate way forwards, but, if it is, it represents so fundamental a change in purposes and values that it should not go without debate.
So is the Quality Assurance Agency turning into the guardian of the academic freedom and autonomy of universities?
This week, the QAA publishes a new strategic plan. We are mapping out our objectives for the next three years. We are also describing our view of the landscape in which our responsibilities lie. For the first time, we are including an explicit statement of our purposes and values.
What are the QAA's values? They are concerned with four topics: the inherent importance of higher education; the entitlements of learners; the responsibilities of the providers of higher education; and the public interest in higher education. Together, these create a frame of reference that I hope may strike a chord outside a small coterie of quality assurance professionals as being, in the deepest sense, "liberal".
The first of these four statements says that "the agency values knowledge, intellectual challenge, imagination, discovery and achievement in higher education; respects the constitutional, intellectual and operational autonomy of higher education providers, and the diversity of institutional mission within the different legislative and educational contexts across the UK; acknowledges the academic calling; and the importance of higher education in the personal, professional and economic lives of citizens individually and collectively; values the high international regard in which UK higher education and its awards are held; and recognises the importance of UK engagement in European and other international developments". The other three statements are similarly broad and inclusive.
Purposes and values are not quite so explicit in the recent white paper on higher education. But some idea of the government's views can be glimpsed or inferred. Clearly, there is a utilitarian purpose. Even if the secretary of state's criticism of learning for learning's sake was just an unfortunate throwaway line, there is nothing in the white paper to suggest that it does not represent the prevailing view and its underpinning sense of values. Higher education looks now as if it is to be mostly about jobs and money, efficiency and business principles: few other values are mentioned in the strategy. This may be just an inadvertent omission. But it raises two fundamental questions that need urgent and intelligent debate: what should be the proper relationship between higher education, society and the state in early 21st-century Britain; and what are the core values that should underpin higher education and be respected by those who want to influence its direction? What is higher education's bottom line?
The QAA, in offering a statement of values that goes beyond short-term expediency, is providing the opportunity for a debate about what higher education is for, what its public role should be and who, ultimately, should own it. It is a debate about the nature of our society. It is a debate about responsibilities.
But is it also a debate about quality? I think it is. Higher education is not only for securing the next generation of wealth creators. It is not only about moving people from one social class to another. It is not only about diplomas. It is also about giving people time and opportunity to develop and mature their intellectual ability, to foster their interest in learning, to have their certainties challenged and to understand a little more about themselves and their world. That is where the unique selling point is to be found. The quality of those opportunities, and the values they represent, are surely a matter of public interest. They need to be assured.
Peter Williams is chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education.