Trust and transparency are frowned upon while degree inflation soars

The QAA's promotion of bureaucratic centralisation cannot go unchecked, says Terence Kealey - reform is needed

October 16, 2008

The poor management of British academic standards, leading to degree inflation, has become a scandal. The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) is ten years old, and in that decade the proportion of students awarded Firsts or 2:1s has risen from 45 to 60 per cent.

The chief executive of the QAA has acknowledged that universities enjoying his agency's confidence nonetheless award classifications that are "rotten" and "arbitrary and unreliable".

Ten years ago, in 1998, the University of Buckingham awarded 39 per cent Firsts or 2:1s, and last year we awarded 43 per cent. So we would appear to have managed academic standards more soundly than some.

Yet the QAA has published a report on Buckingham, and although its auditors said many nice things about us, they also concluded that only "limited confidence can reasonably be placed in the soundness of the university's current and likely future management of the academic standards of its awards".

Why have they reached this opinion? Because the QAA does not measure outcomes, only bureaucracy. When its auditors came, they never left their room in the admin block. They visited no classes, no laboratories, no examinations; they simply read the minutes of meetings and cross-examined people about process and centralisation.

But the bureaucratic centralisation that the QAA promotes also promotes degree inflation. A proper university operates by professionalism, which is built on trust, which in turn is built on the collegiality of the departments. Consequently, a proper university is decentralised, trusting in - and thus fostering - the professionalism of its academics.

But the QAA institutionalises distrust. It enforces central oversight and departmental disempowerment. Consider its criticisms of us. We helped pioneer quality, and our royal charter established an Academic Advisory Council of external academics to audit us. But the QAA criticises the AAC for working too closely with us. We are too trusting, it seems.

Equally, we are criticised for trusting the sponsors of new programmes to nominate external referees and oversee the reviewing. Too empowering of our entrepreneurs, apparently.

The pressure to inflate degrees in Britain, as was recently explored by the House of Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee, comes from the top.

Central administrations encourage departmental academics to inflate. But the QAA's centralisation has undermined the trust and professionalism that once protected the academy from inflation, and too few departmental staff are empowered to resist.

The failure of the QAA's processes to prevent degree inflation has been highlighted by the whistleblowers, whom the QAA - being outcome-indifferent - has ignored. Consequently, the Universities Secretary admonished the QAA for not responding "much more proactively" to individuals who raise concerns.

Britain's degree inflation on the QAA's watch forces the question: what are its qualifications? The QAA says its auditors are our peers, engaged in peer review. So after it received their ruling, Buckingham inquired after their degrees, but the QAA refused to disclose them. Only after receiving a letter from our solicitors did the QAA reveal the degrees - but only to us. You may not see them because, according to the QAA's solicitors, "legitimate concerns have been expressed about the use to be made of the information".

So a British university has its reputation traduced by an agency that thinks there are legitimate concerns over revealing the degrees of its auditors.

The QAA is inconsistent. It says that the academic infrastructure is not mandatory. Actually, it is. And the QAA says that limited confidence is "an outcome that is positive but that improvements need to be made" whereas its chief executive told MPs that, actually, it is a negative outcome.

Perversely, the QAA operates internally by the very trust it scorns in others. When recruiting new auditors it does not verify the claims on their CVs, yet it invokes Data Protection in not disclosing them.

And it treats its clients homogeneously. Buckingham is small and independent, yet the QAA audits us as if needing to reassure the taxpayer that our processes match those of the vast Higher Education Funding Council for England-funded degree-inflators.

Buckingham is the only university in Britain to engage voluntarily with the QAA, but our commitment to transparency and accountability has involved us with an agency that currently has no such commitment. Yet we were created to protect academic freedom against bureaucracy, and we will now engage with the QAA's masters to reform it.

To quote the chairman of the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee, the QAA "farce" must end.

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