The damage to Derby in taking a heavy hand

June 16, 2000

Derby University awaits the Quality Assurance Agency's inspection with understandable trepidation (pages 6-7). The QAA's report on Thames Valley University diminished its reputation and led to contraction. Derby, like Thames Valley, concentrates on the non-elite end of higher education. There is a suspicion abroad, to put it no stronger, that it is at this end of the market that the QAA is most ready to demonstrate the rigour and fearlessness of its guardianship of standards. Further education colleges offering higher education courses share the suspicion that what they do is not always regarded by QAA with enough sympathy and understanding: not for them the promise of a "light touch".

There have been difficulties with Derby's overseas operations which the QAA is to investigate. Derby is not alone in this. In the 1980s and 1990s a desperate hunt for additional revenue led a number of universities into overseas ventures that were poorly managed. Most of these have been improved or closed, sometimes following uncomfortable publicity. Such publicity can do damage well beyond the sections of the institution involved.

In examining Derby's arrangements, the QAA needs therefore to avoid a scattergun approach, which does unintended collateral damage. Derby, as with Thames Valley and with further education, is doing much interesting and innovative work on too little money. It is pulling together potentially confusing and overlapping government initiatives to improve access to further and higher education in its region. Assessing this work requires different criteria from those appropriate to, say, Russell Group universities.

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