Snub for quality watchdog

July 25, 1997

CAMBRIDGE and Birmingham universities have refused to be audited by quality watchdogs.

They have told the Higher Education Quality Council that they think plans to check their quality monitoring are a waste of time.

The snub came following an invitation from the HEQC to universities to take part in an audit update. All were last audited at least five years ago by the former Academic Audit Unit.

Every institution apart from Cambridge and Birmingham has agreed to take part, and audits have already been carried out at Exeter and Sheffield universities.

The HEQC, which is handing over responsibility for quality monitoring to the new Quality Assurance Agency, said ministers had made it clear they expected existing quality checks to continue until the new regime was in place. Quality chiefs are worried that some institutions's self-monitoring systems could go unchecked for over a decade without the audit updates.

Cambridge's refusal to participate is causing particular concern because the AAU's report on the university, published in July 1992, revealed some significant weaknesses. The report drew attention to "the absence of any formal means by which the colleges can be held accountable to the university for the teaching they provide", leaving the university "without any obvious way of assuring the quality of much of the teaching which is offered to its students".

Graeme Rennie, principal assistant registrar at Cambridge, said HEQC's invitation came as the joint planning group for the new quality agency was still considering its proposals for unified quality assurance. The plans for an audit seemed "inconsistent" with the planning group's aim to reduce external scrutiny, and to introduce an eight-year cycle of inspections, he said.

"We will be happy to discuss with the new quality assurance agency ways in which the institutional perspective is to be brought to bear on the new quality process," he said.

A spokesman for Birmingham University said it had been decided that the proposed audit was too soon at a time when it was unclear what the new quality monitoring arrangements would be.

In a letter to the HEQC, the university said: "It would be a great pity if you went ahead now, only to find that the format of the continuation audit was significantly altered in the light of the requirements of the new single quality assurance organisation.

"It would be even more of a pity if it were decided that a separate audit process was unnecessary."

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