THE apparent refusal of Cambridge University to acquiesce in its continuation audit by the Quality Assurance Agency must come as welcome news to all who believe, like me, that British higher education is being inspected, assessed, accredited, validated, kitemarked and quality-assured to death.
When academic audit began, Cambridge was an early victim of the process. Its report painted a gloomy picture of a degree-awarding institution that had hardly begun to think about the need for formal quality-assurance mechanisms. Cambridge relied, instead, on the academic community, the family of scholars. Now that the audit cycle has been completed, Cambridge has been told it must submit to "continuation audit". The good news is that it is refusing to jump this hurdle.
Audit began in the old universities, promoted as a way of deflecting the pressures for full-scale validation and inspection, such as the Council for National Academic Awards and Her Majesty's Inspectors inflicted on the polytechnics and colleges. I was - and still am - a fan of audit, which has forced institutions to think hard about the meaning of quality in higher education and about how they can demonstrate the achievement of quality to the satisfaction of a sceptical public.
The difficulty audit now faces is that it competes with teaching quality assessment. Cambridge has performed extraordinarily well in this exercise. If the Department for Education and Employment really believes in the validity of the quality assessment ratings, it must accept that students who attend Cambridge receive a teaching and learning experience of very high quality indeed. So why burden it with another audit?
The legitimate concern of government must be with the quality of education funded at the taxpayers' expense. Audit does not measure quality. Rather, it evaluates quality assurance. If a "supplier" of higher education offers a product of inferior quality, the supplier cannot complain if the purchaser takes the custom elsewhere. In that case, the supplier will no doubt carry out a thorough appraisal of its quality assurance mechanisms.
But so long as the product offered is of high quality, I cannot accept that the quality assurance processes used by the supplier are any of the government's business. This is the very attitude taken by the government in relation to the award of contracts for a range of goods and services. It must apply, also, to higher education.
In the early 1990s audit served an invaluable purpose. In relation to overseas collaborative provision it still has a role to play. At home, it should now be used only when there are genuine and substantial grounds for public concern about the quality of provision.
If the QAA believes that it has legitimate grounds for concern about teaching and learning at Cambridge, it has a public duty to say so, and to explain why.
Otherwise, it should leave Cambridge alone, and devote its energies instead to the design and testing of a streamlined system of continuous assessment, drawing on the many performance indicators which can be easily constructed from data already in the system.
Pro vice-chancellor Middlesex University