Regular readers will know that in the past year these pages have featured several polemical pieces about quality and standards in higher education. Whether relating to admissions criteria, the Quality Assurance Agency's audit methodology or just the plain dumbing down of academic standards, there has been no shortage of comment and news items that have been picked up by the national media and internet commentators.
The sector faces a ticklish problem dealing with these issues. Of course we need to know whether there is any substance to the allegations. But there is also the question of public confidence: students, applicants, parents and employers want to be clear that the quality and standards of higher education institutions are at the level they expect. Distinguishing between substance and perception is not always easy - nor, for that matter, is distinguishing between quality and standards.
Quality assurance experts have no difficulty with the latter two terms. Quality refers to the policies and practices used by higher education institutions to ensure that teaching and learning are properly managed. Standards refer to the level of achievement in students' degrees. Why the distinction?
Well, the sector accepts that quality is subject to a national regulatory framework operated by the QAA, but rightly insists that standards are an essential element of institutional autonomy, guaranteed by the institutions themselves via professional integrity combined with the external-examiner system.
The distinction exists because the evidence suggests that the most successful universities are the ones that preserve their independence. We should be wary of any quality assurance system that, like Ofsted, attempts to police standards. They are properly the preserve of autonomous higher education institutions.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England must take into account all these matters and more when pursuing its statutory duty. Under the auspices of the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act, it must ensure that provision is made for assessing the quality of education in the institutions it funds. In order to assure itself that this duty is being fulfilled, Hefce has set up a sub-committee of its Teaching Quality and the Student Experience strategic committee.
The sub-committee, which I chair, has not yet finished its work, but it is beginning to reach conclusions about the substance of the allegations, as well as considering how public confidence in the system can be maintained.
Having considered a wide range of research and other sources, the sub-committee has found that there are aspects of the quality assurance system that can be improved, and it will be addressing specific issues in its recommendations. But none of the polemics, the whistleblowing or the individual complaints can be backed up by reliable evidence of serious systemic failure.
This is a bold statement to make, and we are well aware that it invites the charge of complacency. For this reason, members of the public need to be able to make up their own minds. The QAA should have a more public-facing remit to reassure the non-expert. While the audit method has undoubted strengths, it needs to be made more flexible, so that new issues can be systematically addressed. There must be an answer to the charge that the process is uninterested in the actual work produced by students.
The QAA is only part of the picture, however. Universities should provide information in a standard format that is easily comparable between institutions, so that people know what to expect. Applicants, students, parents and employers should be asked what information they would like to have, and where they would like to get it. The information should be supplied in plain English. If applicants want basic information on contact hours, teaching methods and module content, and want it on the university's website, then that is what they should have.
At the heart of an approach to standards based on peer review and self-regulation is the external-examiner system, of which the sector can be proud. But in an age of mass higher education, it must show more transparently that it can ensure the comparability of standards. External examiners need a code of practice within which they can work confidently, and need some recourse if they feel their criticisms are being ignored. This all needs to happen in a manner that preserves institutional autonomy, and the sub-committee will be making specific recommendations to that effect.
Finally, let me share something a recent arrival to these shores said to me about the quality wars. "You Brits", he said, "are great at beating yourselves up. It saves your international competitors the trouble."
Colin Riordan is vice-chancellor of the University of Essex.