Here is a tale of two colleges in one city. Last week the Teacher Training Agency in effect closed La Sainte Union College in Southampton by withdrawing accreditation from courses that account for half the college's work. There is at least a suspicion that this move is the result not of bad work but of too little money. There is also at least a suspicion that the college's difficulties have provided a useful pretext for a display of agency muscle.
Meanwhile, across town, Southampton Institute continues in business. The Higher Education Quality Council first went public in May last year with criticisms of some of the institute's activities. Since then the Higher Education Funding Council for England; Geoffrey Hall, an independent consultant; and the validating university, Nottingham Trent; have all conducted investigations into the institute. But nothing has been done, beyond the institute itself hastily closing its Athens operation.
Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of the various criticisms made of these institutions' work, the contrast in terms of central ability to take decisive action could not be greater. This lesson will not be lost on incoming ministers. Indeed it is likely to be called to their attention by the civil servants waiting on the welcome mat (page 5).
Exasperation at Whitehall's impotence when it comes to sorting out the perceived failings of institutions is of long standing. One of the more recent manifestations was the huffing and puffing at the severance terms granted to the outgoing vice chancellor of Huddersfield in 1994, and the subsequent study of university and college governance by Lord Nolan's committee on standards in public life.
There is now rising hope among civil servants that the Dearing committee will suggest, and the incoming government will legislate for, stronger central powers, perhaps across-the-board powers similar to those which made it possible for the TTA to take action on La Sainte Union.
As the hiatus (for higher education) of the election recedes and the Dearing committee's report looms, this prospect seems at last to be concentrating the minds of vice chancellors. The Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals has been considering who should pay for (and therefore "own") the new quality agency and what powers it should have.
They were also considering another related matter last week: how best to proceed in the matter of academic staff training (page 6). This, like quality assurance, is an area in which a central agency was set up some years ago by the universities - in 1989 in the case of the Universities and Colleges Staff Development Association.
Unfortunately, the motivation with the staff development agency, as with the Academic Audit Unit set up in 1990, had more to do with self-protection than public accountability. At the time the Government was pressing for the establishment of a lead body for academic staff training. The universities were eager to thwart the move without seeming to be hostile to the notion of staff development or proper professional preparation. It is no surprise therefore that UCoSDA's emphasis is on research, guidelines and a voluntary approach. Nor should it be any surprise that something more draconian is thought by many to be needed.
The tentativeness of the universities' approach over many years to self-regulation is nicely illustrated in the statement by Ray Cowell, vice chancellor of Nottingham Trent, about "accreditation commissars". This caution has hamstrung universities' efforts to set up convincing central organisations of their own. It has also persuaded many, whose views are being listened to by the Dearing committee, that higher education does not have its heart in self-regulation. This makes universities and colleges vulnerable to the impatient sweep of new brooms.