Russell elite go for jugular of ailing QAA

September 21, 2001

The elite Russell Group universities are demanding the abolition of all teaching-quality assessment, in defiance of ministers and students.

In a confidential draft response to consultative plans for a new regime of quality assurance for England, the group says that inspection of even 10 per cent of teaching in subject-level reviews is too high and "not acceptable". The paper, seen by The THES , says that quality inspectors should rely only "on the outputs of internal audit processes".

The Russell Group's stance has infuriated student leaders and will anger ministers. The hard-won proposal in the current Quality Assurance Agency consultation document to cut the percentage of subject reviews to 10 has already prompted the resignation of QAA chief executive John Randall, who said the figure was far too low to ensure public confidence in university standards.

One source close to the Russell Group said its response was "going for the jugular" and it was "trying to kick John Randall while he's down".

The group wants inspection at institution, not subject, level. It welcomes the "broad thrust" of the QAA consultation paper, which goes a long way to meeting most of its demands, particularly the key principle that "institution-level audit is the central vehicle" for ensuring accountability. But the Russell Group paper warns that the analogy with financial audit used in the consultation, while "seductive", is wrong. "Higher education institutions can choose their financial auditors from among a number available," it says, and auditors do not delve too deeply beyond their duty to ensure that an institution's accounts are true, fair and materially correct.

The group is not happy with the concept in the consultation paper of "drilling down" - inspecting teaching at subject level in cases where institution-wide audits have uncovered problems. The QAA paper says all institutions should have at least 10 per cent of teaching provision inspected, this rising according to risk.

"External auditors do not normally 'drill down' in the manner proposed in (the consultation paper) - they usually rely on the outputs of internal audit processes, as should the new method of institution-level audit," the Russell Group paper says.

The whole section of the consultation paper in which drilling down is proposed is rejected as unacceptable. "Unless there is a very much more scrupulous and precise set of definitions here, it appears that this process would simply represent a continuation of forms of subject review. Moreover, 10 per cent of higher education students is quite a substantial figure," the Russell Group argues.

The paper says the QAA's audits should not be "subject review by other means", and the identification of areas for drilling down cannot be left to the discretion of the QAA without any defined rules of conduct.

The Russell Group is proposing that auditors should not be in a university for any longer than a week. In the interests of achieving a United Kingdom-wide system, there should be an "immediate cessation" of subject reviews in Scotland, it says, and the planned implementation of the new regime should be delayed from September 2002 to December 2002 to allow for more consultation.

Geoffrey Alderman, an expert in international quality assurance and vice-president of Touro College in New York, said: "The Russell Group is going for gold and it has got a lot of support in the sector."

Owain James, president of the National Union of Students, said: "The NUS is appalled at the suggestions from the Russell Group to abolish all forms of teaching-quality assurance in higher education. Students who are now contributing more than £1.6 billion to the sector need to feel confident that their expectations of a course will be fully met and that there are effective quality-assurance procedures in place."

Ministers are not expected to like the Russell Group's stance. Former education secretary David Blunkett originally announced plans to cut inspections to 40 per cent of provision, subsequently and controversially reduced to 10 per cent. Minister for higher education Margaret Hodge told vice-chancellors at the Universities UK residential meeting last week that they "need to think about how the needs of students and employers are being met".

"Students are less concerned about institutional health than they are about the quality of teaching on their courses," Ms Hodge said, adding that she would be looking at the consultation to ensure a balance between accountability and inspection.

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