Split on quality blueprint

June 5, 1998

THE Quality Assurance Agency's blueprint for policing higher education standards was in tatters this week as two opposing camps tore it apart. The funding councils, keen to get quality monitored, said it was too weak and academics, keen to avoid bureaucratic control, said it was too interventionist.

The Scottish and English higher education funding councils are concerned that the plans are too weak to safeguard public spending. SHEFC, which has refused to sign up to the new system until it is satisfied with the details, warned that proposals contained in the QAA's consultation paper, An Agenda for Quality, "will not by themselves allow the council to meet its statutory obligations".

Its response adds that "the proposed system is not robust enough to sustain a link between quality and funding and poses a range of problems in the generation of objective and comparative public information on quality".

SHEFC is worried that the QAA's "lighter touch" to quality monitoring, placing more emphasis on self-assessment than on external checks, will be too soft to protect public money. It said the proposed system could not be used to allocate funding on the basis of quality "without fear of legal challenge".

Similar concerns have been expressed by members of HEFCE's quality assessment committee over a new version of the proposals being worked on by the QAA, which would hand over more responsibility for quality to institutions.

Insiders say committee members are unhappy with proposals that the QAA should only "sample" institutions' arrangements for self-assessment.

Meanwhile, a response to the proposals written by Cambridge academic David Good, a key member of the think tank Nexus which has close links with the prime minister, said the QAA was "rushing headlong" into an "interventionist, prescriptive, bureaucratic and costly" regime.

Dr Good's paper, which has been approved as Cambridge University's formal response to the consultation, warns that the QAA's proposals for a national qualifications framework, setting degree pass standards and spelling out course learning objectives, "undoubtedly lead firmly in the direction of a national curriculum for higher education".

The paper, which has been posted on the Internet, says the proposals would destroy diversity and "cripple" the better institutions.

The QAA's attempts to reduce costs are flawed, it adds. The plans are "a recipe for paralysing the system in an ocean of unproductive paperwork".

Neither are they compatible with Cambridge's Tripos system. Attempts to define minimum standards in all subjects would be a "meaningless exercise" and "fodder for litigation", while making institutions spell out course objectives would impose "artificial constraints" on course design.

John Randall, the QAA's chief executive, said he had emphasised that the proposals were designed to avoid introducing a national curriculum. "The general sense of hostility to our proposals is not borne out when looking at the complete set of responses," he said.

Dr Good has called for an independent debate about the proposals "that is not mediated by the QAA".

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