The head of the university-standards watchdog has hit back at MPs who produced a report accusing the sector of “defensive complacency”, claiming it was based on prejudice.
In a heated exchange at the National Union of Students’ Quality Matters for Students conference last week, Peter Williams, chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency, said the cross-party committee of MPs “had its thesis in mind before it met anyone” and ignored the evidence.
The Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee’s controversial report, Students and Universities, published last month, calls for either the abolition or overhaul of the QAA, and declares the system for safeguarding standards in universities “unfit”.
Mr Williams, who is about to retire and stressed that he was giving his personal views, claimed that MPs had produced a classic example of “policy-based evidence rather than evidence-based policy”.
But this did not wash with Evan Harris, Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, who was also speaking at the NUS event on 9 September. Dr Harris, a member of the IUSS Committee, leapt to the report’s defence.
He called the sector’s criticism of its conclusions “astonishing” and said attempts to undermine them were based on “spurious nonsense”.
“I care passionately about academic freedom… but academic freedom is not the same as the freedom to take taxpayers’ money and then have an unfair admissions system. It’s not something that you can hide behind to have poor-quality standards,” Dr Harris said.
He added that questions about grading and whether different institutions’ standards were comparable had to be answered, pointing to the near-doubling in the number of first-class degrees over the past decade as cause for concern.
Mr Williams retaliated by hitting out at committee members for their poor attendance record.
“This select committee, which has 16 members, was never graced by more than five. It was, to my mind, shamefully small.”
Dr Harris replied: “Parliament is rubbish, it doesn’t work very well. But of the things that don’t work well, select committees are the least criticisable because they are cross-party. The people signing off the report were the ones who sat through every evidence session.”
He claimed it was the higher education sector itself that had failed to analyse the evidence.