SCOTLAND and Wales are to be the test beds for higher education's new system for policing academic standards, the Quality Assurance Agency has announced.
Minimum "threshold" standards in history, chemistry and law will be in place next autumn and external examiners will visit Scottish and Welsh institutions throughout the academic year.
The examiners will have wider powers, as proposed by the Dearing committee of inquiry into higher education, to help build an accurate picture of the provision and standards of courses.
The QAA has decided to pilot the new system in Scotland and Wales because the current quality assessment cycle finishes there at the end of the present academic year, whereas in England it does not finish until 2000.
Consultation papers on the enhanced external examiners' role and their methods of gathering information, along with other proposals, are to be circulated to institutions in February next year.
Peter Milton, QAA quality group director, says that issues raised by external examiners will be taken up by subject reviewers, formerly known as assessors, before they visit departments.
The QAA is expected to set up a register of about 800 subject reviewers for next February. The QAA wants to cut the number of subjects for review by a third.
Subject reviews will appraise student work but teaching and learning sessions will not be graded individually as before.
Institutions will be allowed to appoint a "facilitator" or observer to ensure the review team has accurate information and understands institutional learning aims.
Four models for collaborating with professional bodies on standards' checks have been proposed. They include professional bodies taking subject review information into account before deciding whether an accreditation visit is necessary; appointing a single combined panel of reviewers; two panels carrying out assessment and accreditation separately but simultaneously; and common documentation to cut red tape.
Reviews of institutions' quality assurance arrangements, including new codes of practice, are to be phased in as the "continuation audits" set up by the former Higher Education Quality Council are completed next year.
TIMETABLE FOR THE NEW QUALITY AND STANDARDS SYSTEM
January: Training of reviewers (formerly known as assessors) February: Register of reviewers published
Mid-February: QAA publishes consultation papers on a new system
April: Briefings for institutional "facilitators" or observers
May: Deadline for institutional self-assessments for autumn visits
Autumn: Draft threshold standards produced for history, chemistry and law 1998/99: First piloting of threshold standards and new external examiner system in Scotland and Wales
From mid 1998: Phasing in of institutional reviews
From 2001: Standards system launched