The decisions they face

May 9, 1997

THES reporters examine the higher and further education issues facing the new ministers


THE NEW Government will inherit near-perfect conditions for taking control of standards and quality in higher education, writes Tony Tysome. By the time ministers have settled in, they will find a centralised quality regime with close links to the funding councils.

A national framework for higher education qualifications will have been drafted by the Higher Education Quality Council, and the Quality Assurance Agency, set up last month, will face pressure from the Higher Education Funding Council for England to check whether the objectives institutions set themselves are appropriate.

HEFCE is also expected to press the agency, which will work under contract with the funding councils, to build monitoring of standards into quality assessment, although this will not affect quality ratings. That would give the council the whip hand over much of the work previously carried out by itself and the quality council.

Meanwhile Sir Ron Dearing's inquiry is expected to recommend that course content be partly prescribed by building "key skills", such as communication and teamwork, into all courses. Institution heads fear it could result in a national curriculum for the sector, and the loss of autonomy.

Sir Richard Sykes, the chief executive of Glaxo Wellcome who is a member of both the Dearing committee and the QAA, said students and employers needed institutions to be clearer about qualifications and courses.

"There needs to be a clear set of parameters within which we can work. Institutions need to achieve a uniformity of provision which has to be of a certain standard, so that when an employer takes on a graduate they know they are getting someone who has had a basic standard of education," he said.

Sir Ron's committee is likely to call for key skills to become an assessed part of courses, but it is not clear who would define them. They might be defined by the quality agency or the new Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

The quality agency, which has four representatives of the funding councils on its board, is also expected to look at linking quality judgements to funding.

* Teacher training college heads will urge the Government to scrap the quality assurance system responsible for closing La Sainte Union College last month.

They want to ensure that if ministers go ahead with a General Teaching Council, they do not allow it to maintain the quality regime developed by the TTA. This week Jack Priestley, principal of Westhill College, which faces a 50 per cent cut in its teacher training intake, condemned the TTA's quality system for "demolishing morale while failing to improve quality".

Some teacher trainers are pinning their hopes for a more sympathetic quality regime on the appointment of Michael Barber, former dean at the Institute of Education, as special adviser on standards and effectiveness in schools.

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