Straitjackets and business ties

June 21, 1996

J. R. Shackleton, below, and Richard Harris, right, join The THES debate to argue against the rigidity of inspection proposals in favour of flexibility. It is difficult to find reasoned dissent from the view that we need a standard system of quality assurance across British universities. After earlier squabbles between different interests, the Joint Planning Group now seems set to come forward with proposals for a Quality Assurance Agency which will satisfy the conflicting demands of vice chancellors and funding councils.

Meanwhile the Higher Education Quality Council is developing the concept of "graduateness" to which the output of our degree courses must conform, while Martin Harris has been beavering away to determine what constitutes "postgraduateness". Elsewhere in the forest calls for a national curriculum in key degree subjects are being heard.

Do we need all this? In a higher education system increasingly dominated by the values of competition and the market place, where students are having to pay an ever-larger share of the costs of their education, why should we be regulated, inspected and generally bossed around more than ever?

For the logic of the market surely leads in an altogether different direction. Rather than one assured quality standard, competitive forces generate different levels appropriate to different market segments. Lunch at the Savoy bears little resemblance to lunch at the local cafe, though customers at both may be equally satisfied. Producers in free markets typically produce a variety of similarly priced breakfast cereals, newspapers and package holidays. They do not have common denominators of "quality" which inspection teams can agree on. Only in unreformed Soviet-style economies did planners presume to impose choices to the degree that the Government does in higher education today.

Successful private sector firms worry about quality. Marks and Spencer's market position depends on its suppliers. We do not need a Lambswool Cardigan Quality Assurance Agency run by superannuated civil servants. Most large firms offer warranties on their products which serve to reassure customers. No British university has yet dared do this with its graduates, although there have been experiments in the United States along these lines: where employees do not possess the skills to which their qualifications attest, the awarding university takes them back for further training. Product liability of this sort might concentrate the minds of institutions awarding degrees to students who cannot spell their names.

Smaller enterprises have different means of signalling quality. One is to seek accreditation from outside bodies - not the state. Restaurants are awarded Michelin stars. In this country the AA grades hotels, the costs of inspection being borne by those who seek recognition.

Here there is an analogy with current United Kingdom university practice: in many vocational subjects degrees are accredited by independent professional bodies, and impose appropriate quality standards in return for recognition. Government intervention is not a necessary condition for maintenance of standards.

The board of the proposed Quality Assurance Agency will be dominated by universities and the funding councils: employers will take most of the other places with some token student representation. From this we can hazard a prediction that agency policy will be dominated by a narrow view of the economic purpose of education and the maintenance of quality standards which depend heavily on peer review - essentially a producer interest that minimises competition.

In these circumstances "quality" will refer to narrowly academic standards, ignoring the wide range of motivation underlying student choice. Higher education has suffered too long from the belief that it is simply an expensive form of capital investment. It is also a consumption good, a part of the leisure industry - perhaps even a form of entertainment.

Why do people choose a university? A reputation for excellence in teaching? Research assessment scores? Employment prospects? Perhaps. But there are also many less utilitarian motives. Exciting city night life. A high media profile. A strong sports reputation. Attractive student accommodation. Accelerated degrees. Low entry grades. Or high entry grades. Recommendations from relatives. All these things add to the "quality" of student experience in a way which will never be captured by tedious quality assurance checklists.

Quality regulators do not pay attention to students' variety of tastes. Instead we impose on them structures we believe to be good for them. The paternalistic mentality that sees the need for detailed quality assurance is the same mentality that launches Soviet-like experimentation in whatever is the flavour of the month.

Take modular degrees, for instance. These were launched with no significant market research. Institution after institution followed each other, lemming-like. Few students of my acquaintance have welcomed the change; many have found the burden of almost constant assessment difficult to bear. It is an indictment of our present and proposed quality assurance systems that their problems cannot easily be addressed.

Why do we regulate at all? The intellectual arguments against letting each institution determine its own quality regime (as opposed to the propensities of all governments to meddle with everything) are limited. One is presumably that of imperfect information: producer/ consumer asymmetry. This might have had some plausibility 20 years ago when there were few schools with knowledge of higher education, and little specialised media attention. This cannot be seriously maintained today. The other concerns the Governments's requirement, as an important higher education funder, of assurance of value-for-money.

My conclusion is that we ought to be dismantling the costly straitjacket of quality assurance with which British universities have been afflicted. We should be seeking a more market-led approach, rather than inventing new agencies and forms of regulation. Or would this be a privatisation too far?

J. R. Shackleton is in the education, training and labour market research group, University of Westminster.

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