Scotland slams QAA's methods

March 9, 2007

The Quality Assurance Agency has been pilloried over its "painful" inspection regimes in an official report by the funding council in Scotland, writes Tony Tysome.

In what amounts to the most comprehensive critique of the QAA from a government body, the report criticises the UK's old teaching quality assessments and subject reviews, and today's institutional audits and teaching quality information regime, all part of the agency's remit.

Reporting the final results of a three-year evaluation of the quality enhancement framework in Scotland, the paper conveys a sense of relief that Scottish institutions have broken free of the "heavy-handed" approach of the previous UK-wide quality assurance system.

Scotland now has a home-grown system that has fostered a more institution-led "lighter touch" process that focuses on how quality can be enhanced by each institution audited - an element that the QAA has now instructed audit teams in England and Northern Ireland to include in their assessments.

Comments gathered from across Scotland by a team led by Murray Saunders, director of the Centre for the Study of Education and Training at Lancaster University, pour scorn on the quality-monitoring methods of the QAA in the 1990s.

They also raise questions about the effectiveness of aspects of the present quality regime, including the Teaching Quality Information website and the National Student Survey.

The report says that in comparison with the old TQAs and subject reviews, the new system in Scotland is seen "as a preferable, and certainly less intimidating, process".

"Terms such as 'heavy-handed', 'imposed', 'inquisitorial' and 'guilty until proven innocent' were used to describe the old process," the report says.

"There was a sense among a number of those we interviewed that audits were a (generally) painful imposition that institutions felt they had to endure in order to satisfy the demands of external stakeholders," it adds.

Many academic staff in Scotland remain sceptical of the benefits of TQI as a useful source of information for prospective students, particularly as three Scottish universities have opted not to take part in the National Student Survey.

Stephen Jackson, director of reviews for the QAA, acknowledged the criticisms of previous quality systems contained in the report.

But he added: "Review methods have been revised to ensure they are carried out in the most effective and least burdensome ways possible."

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