The devil you know

May 20, 2005

University audits are a pain but they are preferable to most of the alternatives, says Mike Thorne

Of course, we said it would never catch on. No one would be interested in audit outcomes, teaching quality grades or research assessment exercise scores, let alone newspaper league tables. But unless you have managed to avoid going anywhere near university admissions for the past five years, you cannot fail to be aware just how central these have become to pupils'

decision-making.

We said that little reliance could be placed on the judgements, and that is the case - they are snapshot judgements after all. We said that they would not improve quality. While there is some evidence that the RAE has improved both the quality and quantity of research, we simply don't know about teaching.

Gossip among those employed by the Quality Assurance Agency as auditors and relayed (no doubt with some exaggeration) to the rest of us suggests some of our greatest institutions do not pass all of the key tests. Having been autonomous for decades (or even centuries) the department of medieval dentistry and the department of hang-gliding at the University of Camford are never going to agree to assess student outcomes in the same way, yet the QAA code of practice says they should. But who as a QAA auditor would put their name to saying that something is wrong at a place so distinguished?

We all knew why it was really introduced. As successive governments reduced funding per student they needed to be sure that the system held on to the fundamental components of undergraduate education. Moreover, some "proof" could then be offered to the voter and indeed to the higher education system itself that the economies were not cutting to the quick.

So why on earth should I have volunteered to speak at a conference on behalf of the motion "This house believes there is no alternative to audit"? My argument is simple: I don't believe it politically possible nowadays for any operation funded by the taxpayer in billions (which we are) to refuse to be publicly accountable; at least the system we have is based on peer review, which is much preferable to any imaginable alternative. Indeed, many of the possible alternatives really are the attack on our autonomy we project on to the current audit and we have nobody but ourselves to blame for the most unpalatable aspects of the current system.

I realise that a handful of reputationally advantaged institutions could possibly see off the political imperative to account for what they spend, at least to a certain degree. The choice for them is probably between going along with a national system inclined to be benign to them or accepting things that are more focused on them and so potentially more painful. For the rest of us there just isn't a choice.

We did manage to block the notion of Her Majesty's inspectors working across all aspects of university curriculums, though our schools of education do have them. It would be easy for any government to rewrite Ofsted to cover all aspects of university activity, however, with or without the inspectors. What a thought. Just spend a moment trying to ape Ofsted decisions on six-year-olds ("Knows the difference between right and wrong - tick the appropriate box: yes; no").

When a further education college is inspected by Ofsted, the Learning and Skills Council conducts a simultaneous audit. It is not unusual for resulting recommendations to tell even the governing body of a college how to behave, such is the interference.

I find that often the serious complainers about our own QAA audit system have not taken the trouble to concern themselves too much with the QAA code of practice that describes our own, really quite basic, system. Indeed most would describe it as stating the blindingly obvious.

Where there is an unacceptable intrusion into academic life is within the benchmark statements, an early attempt at a national curriculum for universities. When putting these together our groups of peers divided themselves into the clever disciplines and the sell-us-down-the-river disciplines. The clever disciplines produced benchmarks that pretty much amount to waffle. The other lot gaily went ahead and defined a national curriculum for their disciplines. We can't blame audit for this.

(Fortunately it is now only necessary to reference the benchmarks.) Scotland has the best university audit system. The system in England is worse because of ministerial insistence that there should be teeth (fail grades) in the audit process.

In my view, we should get on with it. Even the English system is a minimal intrusion, especially given the billions we spend. Anything else would almost certainly be more painful.

Mike Thorne is vice-chancellor of the University of East London. "Must we play the audit game?" will be debated on May 24 at UEL.

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