The quality buck stops here

January 9, 1998

GEOFFREY Alderman's amusing misrepresentation of the purposes and outcomes of the Quality Assurance Agency's "continuation" and overseas audit programmes (THES, December 26) cannot go unremarked.

The purpose of continuation audit is to establish the extent to which individual institutions are discharging effectively their responsibilities for the standards of awards granted in their name, and for the quality of education provided to enable students to attain those standards.

This is important for public reassurance, the standards of British degrees and the quality of related programmes of study must be properly safeguarded by the universities and colleges awarding them, and be seen to be so.

The form of continuation audit also provides an opportunity for institutions to reflect on how well they are handling this responsibility and offers opportunities for all institutions to learn about the state of the art.

Professor Alderman is surprised and displeased that QAA is not using continuation audit to prescribe a single model of quality assurance with which all must comply, and that the approach of each institution is being judged on its own merits.

The new audit process looks at how institutions themselves are guaranteeing their own standards and quality, and at the evidence which they are using for that purpose. It is reuniting responsibility and power and locating both firmly in the institution.

But it assumes that institutions recognise that they have to assure their own quality and standards. It is at the level of the institution that the buck must stop, not in departments, faculties or schools - they do not award degrees.

There is nothing wrong with delegation of responsibility. But it needs effective oversight to ensure that delegation does not become abnegation, a point Professor Alderman does not acknowledge. Continuation audit provides a practical demonstration of QAA's commitment to institutional autonomy. This may not be welcome to all; resentful (or even willing) compliance with external demands can be a very comfortable way of evading responsibility.

Different institutions will approach the challenges posed by academic quality and standards in different ways. The QAA audits are concerned to verify that whatever means are chosen to do the job are reliable and can be seen to be working properly. This is as true of our overseas audits as of continuation audits. There are no mixed messages; it is Professor Alderman who is confused, not audit.

Peter Williams Director of institutional review Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education

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