Thumbs-down from top 30

May 15, 1998

Universities are breaking ranks as they face threats to their autonomy in theshape of new quality and teaching regimes. Alison Utley and Tony Tysome report.

REPRESENTATIVES of Britain's top research universities have dismissed key proposals for a new quality assurance system as "unworkable".

Quality chiefs in 30 Russell and '94 group universities, and some research universities in Scotland, say they view "with considerable concern" plans to create a pool of registered external examiners reporting directly to the QAA.

They have condemned proposals to pilot and establish benchmark standards for each subject area - the principal yardstick QAA bosses want to use.

The quality chiefs, convened by Sir Stewart Sutherland, vice-chancellor of Edinburgh University, say the proposals for registered external examiners with extra powers and responsibilities are "neither realistic nor practicable".

The QAA's plans, which would involve examiners making judgements ranging from the achievement of students to the overall quality of provision, could lead to confusion over the role of the examiner and potential conflicts of interest, the group says. The change would imply a "significant shift in scale", requiring examiners to make overt and systematic judgements.

"It is one thing to alert an institution to significant strengths and weaknesses that might have a bearing on comparability of standards, as the present external examining system aims to do. It is quite another to attempt fine-grained comparisons across a diverse sector with an array of programmes that vary considerably in their purposes, scope and methods of delivery," says the group's response to the QAA consultation.

The substantial time and effort that would be required could drive out large numbers of academics who serve as external examiners, the paper warns.

"The relationship between institutions and their external examiners would become a much more complex triangular one in which allegiances would become uncertain, and ownership and responsibility uneasily divided," it says.

Proposals to establish benchmark standards as a basis for measuring standards on a comparative basis are also flawed, the group believes. The level of information generated is likely to be "so generalised as to be almost valueless".

The group wants a quality assurance system that concentrates on institution-wide reviews and periodic reviews of programmes, backed up by refinements to the existing external examiner system.

The group is "not convinced" by proposals for a direct link between quality judgements and funding.

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