Standards criticism led to dressing-down for ex-QAA head

November 5, 2009

The Government stepped in to admonish the former head of the university quality watchdog "in no uncertain terms" when he publicly criticised the system for classifying degrees, it has emerged.

In a lecture at the Institute of Education on 3 November, Peter Williams, who retired as head of the Quality Assurance Agency last month, revealed that his media comments provoked an angry response from the former Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills.

"DIUS called me in to intimate in no uncertain terms that negative comments about standards were not welcome, as they would damage overseas recruitment," he said.

Its ire stemmed from comments made by Mr Williams to the BBC in June 2008, when he described the degree-classification system as "arbitrary and unreliable", and suggested that there was "a belief from some overseas students that if they pay their fees, they'll get a degree".

His remarks were followed by an inquiry by the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, which concluded in August that the systems in place to safeguard standards are inadequate.

In a paper produced in advance of this week's lecture, The Result of Intelligent Effort? Two Decades in the Quality Assurance of Higher Education, Mr Williams says that the standards row is prompting a significant shift in quality assurance.

He claims that the Higher Education Funding Council for England, "apparently in response to increasing pressure from ministers", has taken steps to "heighten its influence" over England's quality assurance arrangements.

Politicians, Mr Williams predicts, will try to move away from today's "light-touch" regime towards increased accountability. He states that if this is done sensitively, it might be beneficial. However, he cautions, if anything resembling the select committee's idea of quality assurance is introduced, it "would be seriously damaging".

"Its vision of quality assurance goes no further than a crudely disciplinary police force," he writes.

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