The battle for quality

April 12, 1996

If news of plans emerging from the joint planning group for Britain's new higher education quality agency are correct - and if wiser counsels do not prevail before they are finalised - a hard-won opportunity to secure control of quality for the universities will have been lost.

The proposals described this week by Geoffrey Alderman, who is well placed to know and is no enemy of quality assessment, would give the funding council and, therefore, the government of the day, too strong a role in the new agency. This is the same error as has created the loss of confidence in British beef and which is well on the way to creating loss of confidence in British higher education.

Doling out subsidies to providers and monitoring the quality of service received by customers must not be in the same hands. Reassurances about quality are not convincing when uttered by those who would have to foot the bill for remedial action if quality is found to be deficient. One member or an observer should be enough of a presence for the funding councils to be able to make their needs known.

Leaders of Britain's universities, which in theory at least still enjoy a degree of autonomy not found elsewhere, do not seem to value that autonomy much. They appear more concerned with money than freedom to control their own affairs and continue to hanker after the cosy past when government provided subsidies but left their distribution, at least in the old universities, to an academic-dominated committee.

Those days are gone. The university system, then relatively small and cheap, is now large and expensive and the funding councils are government agencies. A committee of inquiry has just been set up which is expected to recommend ways of better harnessing this large and expensive asset to the national economic enterprise. Funding will be reformed in ways approved and controlled by the Treasury. Plans are in the pipeline which will bring the undergraduate curriculum under more central control (see below). Places are already strictly rationed.

It is unwise in these circumstances for universities also to relinquish control over the quality of their work. Vice chancellors who understand the importance of autonomy may once again have to tell their chairman to drive a harder bargain.

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