Trivial tabloid headlines mar quality debate

June 12, 1998

"IT IS time," thundered the leader writer (THES, June 5) "to restate a few big things". Sadly, the thunder died away into the misty drizzle of introspection that has characterised The THES's approach to the quality debate.

This is not a private, internal debate in which the only views that matter are those voiced in common rooms and senates. It is a debate that is taking place because higher education has transformed itself from an elite to a mass system. Key participants in the debate are the new stakeholders in higher education.

Time was when a high proportion of students came from homes with graduate parents and went on to professional or managerial careers to which they were recruited by university-educated employers. Within this self-sustaining group there was a shared knowledge and experience of the values and benefits of higher education. Politically, higher education could be regarded as a good thing in a fairly uncritical way. Its scale was such that it did not challenge seriously other areas of public spending for significant amounts of the national cake.

Those comfortable days are gone. Access to higher education has been widened to include many from backgrounds where there is no previous family experience of university. In the labour market, graduates are displacing those with only school-leaving qualifications. Managers in their 40s who left school at 16 are no longer recruiting people with their own level of formal education to their junior posts, they have graduates queuing up for jobs.

There is a huge new group whose knowledge of the values and benefits of higher education cannot be taken for granted. It is to these people that higher education must explain itself. And it must do so convincingly and urgently, because if it does not those stakeholders will throw their support behind government spending new money on, or even redirecting existing resources towards, things that they do understand and value. Further education, schools, hospitals and many of the other public services now compete with universities for finite resources.

The concerns of these stakeholders are about standards. Many of them want to be reassured that in the rapid expansion of higher education quality has not been sacrificed for quantity.

As students and their families spend more of their own money on higher education they want reassurance that programmes meet standards that will equip graduates to progress in their intended careers.

Some employers complain that graduates lack "key skills". All too often the skills alleged to be lacking turn out to be those that should have been acquired at a far earlier stage of education. They are certainly not the intellectual attributes and conceptual understandings that are the essential transferable skills that higher education should be developing. If debate about the benefits of higher education is becoming bogged down in demands for remedial arithmetic the sector still has some way to go in explaining itself.

The debate about standards can not be an internal matter for the academic community. The stakeholding public no longer accepts the legitimacy of unaccountable professional priesthoods. That we live in a less deferential age in which authority is challenged and individual rights asserted is welcome. A willingness to question received wisdom is a mark of an educated society. Higher education should take credit for the part it has played in teaching society to be constructively critical.

The big things in the quality debate are about stakeholders and their concerns with standards. Of course the quality assurance system that addresses standards must command the confidence of the sector. Of course if must be effective not bureaucratic. We are consulting so as to get the balance right between internal and external systems, and to ensure that accountability sustains academic freedom and does not undermine it.

The THES's reporting of the debate has not helped. Any genuine consultation is bound to results in shifts in and developments of proposals. Divergent views have to be articulated if there is to be any chance of reconciling them. It is easy for that process to be translated into screaming headlines of victory and defeat, of splits and of tattered proposals. It all makes for good copy to wrap around the job advertisements. Fortunately, most people inside higher education are sufficiently well informed to recognise tabloid trivialisation when they see it.

The real damage is done in the world outside. The THES sets an agenda for the general press to follow. Painting a false picture of squabbling academics is no way to reassure stakeholders that we take seriously their concerns about standards.

John Randall is chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency.

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