'Light touch' assessment deemed to be too heavy a burden for universities
Lecturers will be rejoicing this week after quality watchdogs vowed to cut more red tape by abandoning routine subject-level teaching inspections.
In what is being billed as the final nail in the coffin for the notorious teaching quality assessment (TQA) system, the Quality Assurance Agency confirmed this week that it has abolished its system of discipline audit trails (Dats).
Under the Dats process, the QAA "drilled down" to inspect a selection of individual subject areas during its so-called light- touch audits of entire institutions.
The move, recommended last week by Dame Sandra Burslem's review of the QAA regime, will halve the cost of complying with institutional audits in England and Northern Ireland from £20 million a year to £10 million - or from about £147,000 per institution to £77,000.
"We are very happy with the outcome of the review," said Peter Williams, chief executive of the QAA. "It confirms that we have done a good job and that the job is worth doing. But it allows us to build on what we have done."
The old TQA or subject review system - under which every single university department was inspected in a massive ten-year cycle - was abolished by David Blunkett, the former Education Secretary, in 2001.
The system, which found failure rates of less than 1 per cent of departments, lost credibility amid allegations in The Times Higher of gamesmanship and cabals.
But the breaking point was the revelation that the system was costing an already hard-pressed sector £250 million in red tape.
Mr Blunkett scrapped the system after particularly hard lobbying by the Russell Group.
John Randall, the QAA chief executive at that time, left shortly after.
The system was replaced with a new regime of institution-wide audits, under which inspectors visited universities for little more than a week, once every six years, to check that bureaucratic systems were in place to ensure universities were capable of assuring their own degree standards.
But with the introduction of tuition fees, and a new focus on students' rights as consumers, ministers wanted something to show that they had not abandoned a rigorous approach to ensuring that England's universities delivered high-quality education.
The compromise was the Dats system.
During each audit, the QAA sent in subject specialists to examine standards in between four and six departments in every university - representing at least 10 per cent of an institution's full-time equivalent student numbers.
The QAA completed 120 of the 135 new-style audits - including about 600 Dats - which it had to cram into a transition period between 2002 and 2005. Dame Sandra's year-long review of the regime will make Dats a thing of the past.
Her report, Review of the Quality Assurance Framework , examined the "impacts, benefits and costs" of the QAA regime. It found that the new system was fit for purpose and cost effective.
New financial extrapolation says the total cost of all forms of regulation in higher education now stands at £40 million - some £210 million less than when TQA was in place.
But Dame Sandra, vice-chancellor of Manchester Metropolitan University, suggests that the "light-touch" regime could be made even lighter for the next, full six-year cycle, which begins in early 2007.
"The costs involved have been acceptable and an improvement on past approaches, but it is possible to reduce both the burden and the costs, while improving the effectiveness, in the next cycle," she says.
"However, a high proportion of the costsof audit have been related to Dats, which, in the view of the institutions, delivered few recognisable benefits."
The report says that institutions "have experienced Dats as 'mini subject reviews', involving substantial burden and other impacts that were associated with subject review, and that they have been of very limited enhancement value".
Dame Sandra cross-referred to a separate report on the QAA regime by JM Consulting, published simultaneously last week, which found that universities were spending as much as the equivalent of 120 "person weeks" on a Dat.
One institution reported: "The Dat approach did not appear to be light touch for the academics involved. The mount of paperwork required shocked them."
The report from JM Consulting said: "While less than in subject review, there are still tendencies by some to treat this as a 'trial by paper'.
"Dats add significantly to the cost and pressure of audit - for the QAA as well as for institutions; they also arguably skew the ethos of audit in an undesirable direction. We question whether they add sufficient value to justify these negative impacts."
Kel Fidler, vice-chancellor of Northumbria University, agreed. "There was a real feeling that they were just like the old TQAs and were not the 'light touch' promised," he said.
"A lot of people will be rejoicing to see them go."
The Burslem report recommends that Dats be replaced by "a flexible audit trail methodology".
Dame Sandra says that this could include the ability to examine the subject level, on an entirely discretional basis, but could more appropriately look at themes.
She instructed the QAA to produce new proposals for consultation during autumn 2005.
Mr Williams told The Times Higher : "We will no longer routinely look at the subject level and we will not recruit subject specialists to join audit teams.
"In future, the trails may be disciplinary, but they are more likely to be thematic - for example, we could decide to look at institution-wide assessment systems or student welfare, or external examining.
"The level of activity by the QAA team will be much the same but the burden on the institutions will be much less."
The reforms have the enthusiastic backing of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, as well as Universities UK and the Standing Conference of Principals.
The reforms were also this week given the backing of Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister.