Streamline inspection

September 28, 2001

The Russell Group supports targeted quality assurance, says its chairman Colin Lucas .

A few days before last week's lead article concerning the Quality Assurance Agency appeared in The THES, I had been working with colleagues in the Russell Group on the final version of the group's input to the consultation document issued by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the QAA, the Standing Conference of Principals and Universities UK. Even with the benefit of this experience, I had difficulty in recognising either the reported approach or, in some instances, the reported detail of our draft document. The intention of the Russell Group has not been to hasten the demise of the QAA. Rather, our intention has been to make a serious and measured response to a consultation that is of the utmost importance to the future of the higher education sector and its stakeholders.

Indeed, our response welcomes the general principle of the proposals circulated; we state explicitly that the Russell Group "believes that institution-level audit sustains the need for accountability whilst lessening the substantial burden placed on the sector by the previous system". In both of these points, I believe that the group's view is at one with the broad range of opinion across the whole higher education sector.

The Russell Group fully accepts the need for accountability for institutions in receipt of public money. We also subscribe entirely to the view that stakeholders must have adequate information. It is beyond question that, for example, potential students must be able to make informed choices and employers need to be assured of the quality of the learning and teaching delivered by the universities from which they recruit.

So the Russell Group's response to the consultation document states explicitly that it "recognises the importance of the provision of clear information for stakeholders". The question is how that information is best provided and in what form. It is the consultation document itself, following the direction indicated by the previous secretary of state, that has put the emphasis on institution-level review. As the document reveals, a task group under the vice-chancellor of the University of York will examine what sort of information should be provided and in what form. It is on these matters that the Russell Group is commenting.

We most certainly do not oppose close examination of departments where institutional review demonstrates that there are good grounds to think that there is significant failure, but it should be pointed out that the sector has now undergone almost a complete cycle of subject reviews, and that very few problems have been found in any institution.

The issue is whether an institution's own processes of quality assurance are adequate. That can be shown perfectly well by paper evidence as part of institution-level review. There is, after all, a great deal of evidence available: universities have their departments reviewed on a regular basis, and examinations are monitored each year by external examiners.

In common with the Russell Group, an overwhelming majority of institutions within the sector supports a significant and extensive revision of the current quality assurance process. As the authors of the consultation have recognised, it is time for a less burdensome quality assurance methodology, which, if developed properly, will command the support of all stakeholders. It is also time, as we say, "to see further development of the QAA's potential for the positive enhancement of learning and teaching".

Recent research has indicated that the sector is underfunded by about £900 million per annum, and that the accountability process, of which Teaching Quality Assessment constitutes a significant part, costs an estimated £250 million annually. This figure is the size of the annual budget of a civic university: we all need to be clear that we are getting value for money.

Colin Lucas is chairman of the Russell Group
How should the QAA move forward? Email .

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