The messy truth behind the quality assessment truce

January 21, 2000

All the organisations involved in the recent agreement on quality assurance are keen to put on a good face and claim victory for their position. The truth is messier.

A number of factors are at work. Fear: agreement was apparently reached under the threat of government-controlled inspection. Fatigue: this dispute has been going on for a decade. Vested interest: most institutions want something agreed that will preserve the fiction, so important for overseas marketing (page 1), that all United Kingdom higher education conforms to the same standard. Cynicism: some believe the terms are now sufficiently fudged to allow elite universities to secure "light touch" assessment and do their own thing.

But some are rightly unwilling to go along with this ignoble truce. What has apparently been agreed is highly complex: institutional reviews at least every six years that will include off-campus distance learning and commercial collaborations; standards reviews based on subject benchmarks and a uniform qualifications framework; teaching quality assessments of departments under three headings, each of which will be marked "commendable", "approved" or "failing".

Even the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals' president, Howard Newby, who has been involved in negotiating the deal, admitted that the scheme is "not a system the universities would have devised left to their own devices". But universities, left to their own devices for 15 years, failed to devise any robust system. So now they are lumbered.

Gordon Marsden (page 18) calls for a radical review of the whole research and teaching assessment system. This will not happen before the next research assessment but might thereafter. Wales and Scotland have the chance to pioneer alternative arrangements to satisfy their funding councils' legal obligation to see that quality is assured. And powerful research universities in the Russell Group could develop international accreditation systems that government or funding councils would find hard to reject.

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