Spot the hidden costs

May 31, 1996

Are plans for quality assurance heralded in a new report on the right lines? Three readers think not. After encouraging rumours of a "lighter touch", the first report of the joint planning group on the quality assessment system of the future for higher education is something of a disappointment. Rather than decide between institutional-level or department-level quality review, the planners have compromised by retaining both - and then added formal internal reviews.

The Higher Education Quality Council's institutional audit and the activities of the quality assessment division of the funding council are to be combined under a single agency "owned" - but not controlled - by the universities.

To a quality management specialist, the report appears to be based on unfortunate concepts of quality and its assurance. The soundbite-terminology of defining quality of education as "fitness for purpose" is useful only in a carefully constructed context. Adopting the definition without such a context begs questions such as whose purpose and what is the value of what is provided?

The planning group has failed to appreciate that systematic quality assurance is now essential to maintaining quality and standards, with increased student numbers and an ever-diminishing unit of resource.

Present methods are needlessly elaborate, and involve much unnecessary activity, with concealed costs which must amount to many millions of pounds per annum, including the costs of disruption caused by over-assessment and the requirement to prepare extensive departmental self-assessments. Hidden costs also include many weeks taken from the normal duties of hundreds of subject specialist assessors, who are mostly full-time academic staff.

Instead of reducing the departmental burden, the report says that formal internal quality monitoring mechanisms add to present external scrutiny.

Having an expensive quality assessment process might be worthwhile if it were really effective. But the current assessment methodology is unbalanced, because of the continuing emphasis on intrusive observation of teaching and learning. Watching nervous academics delivering the best-prepared lectures they are likely to give all year will not provide an objective assessment of the normal standard of teaching. This aspect of the assessment visit, however, while still taking up most of the assessors' time, counts for only four out of the 24 points available!

A further concern is the reliability of the grades and points awarded. The planning group intends to continue the practice of referencing departmental assessment to the subject-provider's own aims and objectives rather than to any consistent criterion or standard. However independent and rigorous the assessors, this practice can hardly deliver the "consistent and comparable basis to command public confidence" laid down in the report. If a more objective process were adopted, reviews could be conducted in a single day by one or two external assessors, without the need for preparation of an extensive self-assessment document.

Alternatively, documented self-assessment could be retained to inform departmental quality reviews conducted by the university. By proposing the continuation of a flawed and unwieldy approach to assessment the planning group has failed, as yet, to achieve a satisfactory level of quality.

James Tannock

Department of manufacturing engineering and operations management, University of Nottingham.

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