Scales rethink urged by CVCP

September 24, 1999

The QAA is running into more trouble. Tony Tysome and Phil Baty report

Vice-chancellors are to lobby ministers for changes to controversial plans for a new quality assessment regime.

The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals is to write to David Blunkett, secretary of state for education and employment, to protest against plans for a descriptive or numbered scale for subject reviews.

Vice-chancellors are worried that such a scale might mislead students and employers and could be used to make direct comparisons or for compiling league tables.

The CVCP will also tell Mr Blunkett it is unhappy that the QAA has still not yet clarified how its proposals for "lighter touch" assessments on institutions with a good track record will work.

Tony Bruce, policy chief of the CVCP, said: "We need to ensure that the department is fully aware of our position and the arguments on which it is based."

Quality watchdogs were attempting to rescue the plans today at a crisis meeting with funding chiefs and university and college heads.

Vice-chancellors and college principals are furious with the QAA for presenting them at short notice with a blueprint they find unacceptable, despite months of consultation.

Although the QAA does not recommend using a number system, preferred by funding council chiefs, university and college heads fear that the proposed "descriptive" scale could easily

be converted into numerical ratings.

The QAA appears to be determined to stick to its proposals. At a quality assurance workshop in Tarragona, Spain, last week, Julie Swann, the QAA's development manager, told delegates: "There is a suggestion that we should not use graded profiles. But if the agency is not producing that type of information, who will produce the kind of independent and verified information that is needed for public information purposes?"

Howard Newby, Southampton University vice-chancellor and CVCP president, told the CVCP last week: "We remain completely committed to supplying easily accessible public information on the quality of our courses. But we cannot accept that this information can be reduced to a simple numerical value that will, inevitably, obscure more than it will reveal. We must continue to press our case on this, to arrive at an outcome that we can accept as credible and that our stakeholders will accept as helpful.

"Whatever the outcome of these consultations, I am determined to demonstrate and defend our capability to be our own watchdogs."

Higher Education Funding Council for England officials are understood to have already called on the QAA to make the proposed descriptions "more positive" by using the word "approved" in the top three ratings.

The Standing Conference of Principals suggested that this was an attempt by the HEFCE to persuade institutions to accept a compromise.

Patricia Ambrose, chief executive of SCOP, said: "We are going to have to find some kind of compromise. We cannot accept the proposals as they stand."

The Higher Education Funding Council for Wales is believed to still prefer the use of numbers or a descriptive grading system.

Roger Brown, former chief executive of the Higher Education Quality Council and now principal of Southampton Institute, said that the main issue was the QAA's failure to provide details of the criteria to be used to determine which institutions will get a light touch.

Responding to criticisms that there had not been enough consultation, a spokesman for the QAA said that full details of the plans would be published in late October and a "subject reviewers" handbook would be published "for comment" in December.

QAA PROPOSALS

Teaching quality assessments or subject review

Two strands: quality and standards.

Judgements on "quality of learning opportunities" will be reported for:

Teaching

and learning

Student pro-

gression

Learning resources.

These will be reported with a four-point scale using labels.

Standards will be reported for five aspects of provision, including:

Learning outcomes and how they relate to subject benchmarks and qualification levels

Curriculum design and content for intended outcomes

Curriculum content related to

qualification levels

Student achievement of intended outcomes

Assessment to measure achievement of outcomes.

Institutional review

Focused on:

Arrangements for approving programmes

Management

of credit arrangements

Assessment

procedures

External examining.

A "light touch" will be awarded to institutions with a good track record.

Institutionwide reviews using the new method will begin in 2001-02.

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