The balance of quality and autonomy

February 14, 1997

THE APPOINTMENT of Christopher Kenyon as chairman of the new quality agency marks another important step towards a single set of external quality assurance arrangements for United Kingdom higher education. The agency should be formally established by April 1 and the functions transferred as close as possible to July 31. Given the intention to introduce the new quality assurance process from October 1998 this is not a moment too soon.

The joint planning group report which will provide the starting point for the new arrangements states that the prime responsibility of an external quality assurance agency "should be to support higher education institutions in discharging their responsibility for the maintenance and enhancement of the quality and standards of their educational provision".

This is valuable recognition that quality cannot be "audited in" or "assessed in" but must depend ultimately on the high professional standards of the academic community. The fundamental purpose of external quality assurance should be to confirm, through institutions' own arrangements: * that the standards of student attainment which institutions establish and achieve are within the range which the academic community and relevant external constituencies regard as appropriate for the level and type of qualification concerned * that students are provided with the learning opportunities and support which enable them to reach those standards * that students and others connected or potentially connected with the institution are fully and accurately informed about those standards and learning opportunities, about the institution's success in achieving them, about the relevant educational prerequisites, and about employment and other opportunities.

How can we reconcile academic autonomy with the clear wish, reflected in much of the evidence to the Dearing committee, to assure minimum levels of standards across the sector? The only alternative to a statutory approach is for the academic community collectively to use its authority to determine the limits of what it regards as educationally acceptable, and for these limits to be stated clearly. The main recommendations of the Higher Education Quality Council's graduate standards programme are intended to provide a path towards this. I hope and expect that the sector will be prepared to accept the recommendations, or to put forward an alternative way of achieving the same objectives of greater clarity, consistency and security of standards appropriate to the kind of higher education system we now have.

How can we transform the processes of audit and assessment so that they reinforce and become more responsive to institutions' internal processes? The key is to move steadily to more selectivity in the way in which the new process is applied. This raises some difficult questions which will require careful discussions with the agency's sponsors and other key stakeholders. It is the key both to effectiveness and to cost-effectiveness in quality assurance.

How can we shift both the new process and the agency's work programme away from the accountability dimension of quality assurance towards the enhancement/development aspect? How can we make it a reality while still ensuring that external stakeholders have the information they need to make decisions about quality and standards?

The agency will have to use its resources to best effect. The key test will be the value which the institutions and the funding councils attach to what it does. While audit and assessment have achieved a great deal, they are not perceived to have added as much value as those who designed them might have wished. Developing and delivering a process which does so will certainly be a major challenge.

It is now more than two years since the Government first agreed to contemplate modifications to the existing arrangements. Understandably there is impatience in some quarters. However it is also important not to underestimate the tasks which the new agency faces, not least that of securing continuity in the existing programmes of audit and assessment at the same time as reaching what the agency's chairman, Christopher Kenyon, has described as "firm and clear decisions about the best way forward" (THES, February 7).

The underlying question is how the new agency will reconcile the demands of accountability and information to external stakeholders on the one hand with the development needs of institutions on the other. The key to this must be trust. It is vital that the new agency develops a "vision" of the kind of arrangements which it would like to see developed over five to ten years and which will take us away from the battles of the past.

Roger Brown is chief executive of the HEQC and a visiting professor at the Institute of Education. This article is based on his inaugural lecture this week.

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