The gains from collaboration

August 31, 2001

Consultation presents a rare opportunity for universities, says Gill Evans.

So John Randall has resigned because he cannot put his heart into "leading the development work" on the consultation on the future of the Quality Assurance Agency. That consultation is now rocking on its heels.

The other consultation afoot this summer is about the setting-up of a system of independent review for universities, to reassure students that if things go wrong, there will be an independent third party to go to.

Universities are invited to respond to both consultations by mid-October. They are going to be hard pushed at a time of year when even Maureen on the back page gets her one-week staff holiday. These are, however, opportunities too important to miss.

I have a suggestion. It is that universities should try framing their responses by taking the two together.

The immediate response to the consultation about independent review has tended to be negative because one big constituency (those who see themselves making the complaints) fears that the system will not be sufficiently robust and independent to meet their needs, and the other (the universities who will have to answer for their conduct) fears what may come to light if it turns out that the system really is sufficiently robust and independent.

Now that Randall is leaving, anxieties about the reappearance of the justly hated teaching quality assessment by a back door can relax a little, for that was his "baby". He has suggested that the alternative is no real scrutiny at all. But the consultation document holds out a third option, and that is the one to run with.

There could be an end to league tables and a move to well-written considered reflections if universities and the new-style QAA worked together. Let's stop cranking the crude bureaucratic machinery of statistics and measurement and try to "internalise" good habits in those running the system by concentrating on the deep purposes of higher education.

The prima donna displays of temperament and the reports of angry words from powerful interest groups are signs of the scale of the problem to be addressed.

The response to both consultations that I would like universities to make is this: "We are spending a lot of time and money dealing with the consequences of the mistakes we make in our treatment of staff and students. We could really do with some help.

"All that laborious data collection is a bore and is not going to pinpoint the problems. Couldn't someone come up with a lively, fresh style of reporting? Mind, we aren't too enthusiastic about other people seeing our dirty linen going round in a public launderette. We are afraid that as things are at the moment, the independent reviewer and the new-style QAA may want to use words like maladministration and mismanagement, which we are not keen to have applied to us. We can see, though, that if we could go into independent review and new-style QAA institutional audit in a collaborative spirit, we could take such words out of their mouths. Our teaching quality could benefit no end.

"If we cooperate with these two projects, couldn't we have an effect on the way they develop? We could weather a few years of self-analysis and uncomfortable revelations that would lead to a 'steady-state' audit regime with hardly any cases needing independent review."

Has any university got the confidence and maturity to try it this way?

Gill Evans is public policy secretary for the Council for Academic Freedom and Standards.

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