The teaching quality assessment exercise has been rendered all but meaningless by grade inflation, gamesmanship and the rise of inspectors' "cartels", experts have claimed.
Analysis of 665 teaching quality assessment reports, published during the Quality Assurance Agency's 1998-2000 assessment round, suggests that institutions can simply "buy" top marks, with excellence linked to resources. The findings are based on almost 4,000 inspection grades given across 13 subject areas.
The analysis, compiled by The THES with Roger Cook, academic development adviser in Napier University's quality enhancement services, reveals a dramatic increase in the number of departments judged to have excellent teaching.
Individual departments are awarded a grade between one (failing) and four (excellent) in six aspects of teaching provision, giving an overall mark out of 24.
In the 1998-2000 round, 60.5 per cent of departments received at least 22, compared with 33.9 per cent gaining excellent ratings in 1996-1998 and 24.8 per cent in the 1995-1996 round.
But experts believe that the increase is as much due to institutions' increasing ability to manipulate the process as it is to genuine improvement.
"It is the triumph of exam technique over genuine ability," said Geoffrey Alderman, former pro vice-chancellor for quality at Middlesex University, who has worked as a TQA reviewer for the QAA and now provides training to institutions on how to maximise their scores.
Mr Cook said the improvement was partly "a measure of genuine quality improvement... but since the whole process is set against self-created aims and objectives, it has to be vulnerable to the impact of institutions learning exactly how to write these so as to maximise their grades".
But John Randall, QAA chief executive, is adamant that higher grades reflect improved teaching.
Very few examples of failing provision were found. Just 0.12 per cent (five) of the grades given were grade ones and most criticisms were for poor-quality management systems.
The analysis also reveals a hierarchy, with the richest, old universities outperforming their poorer counterparts. In 1998-2000, the average mark among old universities was 22.33 compared with 21.58 among post-1992 universities and 20.5 among colleges with higher education provision.
The discrepancies were most marked in art and design (22.33 for old universities compared with 19.74 for colleges) and in medicine, where old universities achieved an average 21.38, compared with 16 for new universities. Professor Alderman said this showed the process was too closely linked to an institution's resources.
There were discrepancies between different subject areas. The largest number of fours were awarded in veterinary medicine, where a team of 12 reviewers judged four departments, reporting excellence in each one. They awarded 23 fours out of a total of 24 (96 per cent). The fewest fours (47 per cent) were awarded in organismal biosciences.