The right to say no to the auditors

February 6, 1998

Many senior managers will have been surprised that Cambridge University does not wish to involve itself in the Quality Assurance Agency's continuation audit process (THES, January 30).

The QAA learned much from last year's pilot audits at Exeter and Sheffield universities. Bradford, East Anglia and York are among the universities that have recently been visited by auditors implementing the new model; Aberdeen, Durham and Southampton are among those to be visited shortly.

So why is Cambridge being isolationist? Since 1991 the audit process has achieved great respect. The first round is acknowledged to have been a triumphant success. It made universities and colleges of higher education think about their quality assurance processes and many developed and improved their practices following advice.

Asking senior management insistent questions about how its members knew that staff development or student representation or course monitoring schemes were effective was a thought-provoking exercise. Asking the same questions of departmental staff was often revealing.

Continuation audit, which tests aspects of the learning infrastructure and emphasises internal and external communications, is a useful follow-up. It is hard to see how any institution can declare that its confidence is such that this revisiting of central quality assurance procedures is a waste of everyone's time.

Preparing for a visit is burdensome, but it is a rich opportunity for making staff more greatly aware of their responsibilities, for self-reflection and for pondering a critical and constructive overview.

A reading of the Dearing report on higher education makes clear that the agenda has changed. Institutional audit is seen as complementary to the vigorous pursuit of more explicit policies regarding academic standards, implemented with the help of subject associations and of staff willing to take on a new kind of responsibility as external examiners.

The QAA is driving all this forward. The centrepiece is setting, defining, monitoring and assessing standards, discipline by discipline. Where, with some of the cleverest students in the land, could Cambridge's experience and practice, indeed its lead, be more valuable?

Academic standards are central to the inquiries of auditors in the new round of visits. They are seeking to discover how far institutions have gone in developing and implementing strategy. If a university presents itself as busy thinking about the findings of the graduate standards programme or investigating the usefulness of generic-level descriptors across its departments, auditors will want to talk about these things.

If it displays another approach this, equally, will be investigated and discussed. For a leading university not only to say nothing about its views on standards, but to refuse even to contribute to this crucial national debate, especially when it is trying to justify receiving extra funds for its tutorial system, is surely entirely unacceptable. Cambridge should reconsider its position.

Anthony Fletcher

Auditor, Quality Assessment Authority convener History at the universities defence group

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