Split over subject review secrecy

July 6, 2001

Teaching quality assessments could be kept secret under the new quality assurance regime, according to a draft blueprint obtained by The THES . Student leaders have condemned the move.

A debate about whether to publish subject-level review reports and the implications for public accountability is understood to have split the sector and is the remaining hurdle for the new regime.

The blueprint, approved by funding chiefs and vice-chancellors, is due to be published for consultation later this month. It outlines plans to slash the volume of teaching assessment and use institution-wide audit to check quality. Quality inspectors will conduct a "highly selective" audit of institutions' own internal audit systems every three years, with subject-level review activity only where they find areas of risk.

Under a plan that virtually wipes out four years of development work by the Quality Assurance Agency, top-performing institutions could have less than 20 per cent of their teaching inspected, with the national volume of subject-level review activity cut below 50 per cent.

But funding chiefs and vice-chancellors are in conflict with the QAA over the publication of the subject reports. The Higher Education Funding Council and Universities UK are said to be in favour of keeping them secret.

The QAA, conscious of its remit to "promote public confidence" in higher education, wants to continue to publish them.

The blueprint keeps the matter open. "It is for consideration whether (the) reports would be published," it says. "On the one hand there are arguments relating to transparency of process, accountability and the provision of up-to-date public information for students and others which point to publication of review reports, as now."

Some vice-chancellors argue that publication of reports inhibits openness by institutions keen to maintain their public image and contributes to a culture of gamesmanship in which reports become increasingly meaningless.

"An alternative approach (to publication)... would be for the initial reports to be confidential advice to the institution, with a focus on any action needed to enhance quality and standards... It would increase the chances that the subject-level review process was a frank and constructive exchange between academic peers," the draft says.

Owain James, president of the National Union of Students, said: "NUS favours a system where universities undergo public teaching quality assessments. These give students clear and consistent independent information on which to base their decisions when researching courses. The government can't keep charging students more for their education and then claim there isn't enough money for quality assurance."

In a concession to the elite Russell Group universities, which have complained that the QAA has attempted to impose centralised bureaucratic quality-assurance models, the draft paper sets clear parameters:

"Institutions could use whatever internal methods they chose for setting, enhancing and reviewing quality and standards. The purpose of the audit is not to prescribe and seek compliance with a particular method, but to assess the robustness of each institution's approach."

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