The bumpy road to quality

June 5, 1998

Consultations on the Quality Assurance Agency's proposals for quality assurance in British higher education officially ended on May 22 amid signs that anger is rising in the academic community. This week Cambridge and the General Medical Council have joined the attack led by Sir Stewart Sutherland (THES, April 3), James Wright (THES, April 17) and Sir David Smith (THES, May 15).

What is dawning on those who have wrestled with the interlocking concepts set out in the discussion document (page 6) is that the proposed structure risks being a bureaucratic nightmare, a threat to diversity and an invitation to academics to play compliance games rather than genuinely commit to improving quality within their own institutions.

Changes have already been demanded and conceded. More are expected to emerge in the next few days as the QAA crunches the submissions it has received. The changes already made have been enough for the vice-chancellors' chairman, Martin Harris, to claim (page 14) that "an acceptable methodology is emerging" and for another vice-chancellor to claim the QAA has "hoisted the white flag".

Close scrutiny of the QAA internal document setting out proposed modifications so far suggests, however, that surrender is less than total. The structure remains in place. The changes stop at allowing vice-chancellors to retain more control over external examiners' reports and phasing out teaching assessments. And even these alterations have alarmed the funding councils, which are worried about carrying out government instructions to reward teaching excellence if there are no assessments.

At present the whole situation seems extremely muddled. It may therefore be a good time to restate a few big things. First, better quality assurance arrangements for higher education were badly needed. The exercise of reviewing, auditing and assessment has been beneficial because it forced reluctant people to review what they were doing. But that does not mean that a tighter regime will be better. Second, any new arrangements must be devised by the universities and academics themselves rather than being imposed by government.

The designers of the new system need to take seriously the point that British higher education is already too diverse to be subject to any single quality regime and that it should become more diverse if it is to serve the country well.

The objectors need, however, to be aware that while it is easy to demolish proposals, it is harder to come up with something better. It is incumbent on those who dislike what is proposed to do more than carp or rely on obstruction and obfuscation to mitigate the ill effects they fear.

If a durable system is to be devised that enhances quality and gives students and employers the information they need and taxpayers the assurance that their money is being well spent, concrete counter-proposals are needed and needed fast.

To this end Nexus, some of whose members helped formulate Cambridge's response, are opening their web site HEDU-UK* for debate. To help focus that debate, the quality assurance blueprint that The THES commissioned in 1993 is also being posted there. This is not because we think it is the definitive answer. It is offered simply to provide a starting point from which to develop an alternative model.

In the next few weeks The THES will work with Nexus to see if the academic community itself can come up with something with which people are more comfortable. If so, the QAA exercise may turn out to have been useful and the QAA itself may turn out to be more receptive than people suppose.

* hedu/subscribe.htm

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