Testing times on credibility

May 10, 1996

The Higher Education Quality Council wants to be the core of the independent quality assurance agency now on the drawing board. If it is to do so, it must produce reports on institutions which are credible, authoritative and on occasion critical. It looks as if it is about to pass this test with the Southampton Institute (front page), which is confronted with criticisms of its international activities in a draft HEQC report.

If the HEQC is to become a plausible guarantor of higher education quality, the institutions that own it have to want it to succeed. It can only do so by being able to publish findings that it has arrived at in good faith.

The point of the HEQC or its successor body is to ensure that higher education takes control of its own fate. The alternative - a nationalised system transferring the joys of the Office for Standards in Education from schools to universities and colleges - is too grim to contemplate. Politicians want to avoid it and so should anyone with an interest in academic freedom. But one thing that could return it to the agenda is the sight of institutions wrangling with the HEQC before the new system has even become established.

It is also important for genuine objections to the proposed quality regime to be taken into account, such as those raised by the Welsh institutions (back page). Institutions differ in their missions and quality systems, and not allowing for them would at the very least mean more expense and bureaucracy. Launching the system without Welsh participation would mean isolating the Welsh and weakening the whole setup, a poor outcome for all concerned.

Both the Welsh and the Southampton Institute have an interest in making HEQC and its successor body as good as they can be: they should realise that threats and complaints are the quick way to damage a system whose failure would be a serious setback for the sector.

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