Universities are sinking under inspection load

March 23, 2001

Higher education wastes money on quality assessments that could be better spent, argues Roderick Floud.

Fees for 250,000 students; the cost of five universities; the pay of 10,000 lecturers: each equals - but probably underestimates - the £250 million annual cost of quality control, audit, accountability and research assessment systems in English higher education. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland spend proportionately the same.

One fortnight last autumn, London Guildhall, a medium-sized university, was engaged in, or preparing, for 11 different inspections. Each required effort by staff, students and governors. Such preparation often also includes expenditure: it is normal to paint corridors and buy additional books and computers.

Then there is the psychological effect. Teaching quality assessments can produce the same stress as the research assessment exercise, much of it self-induced as academics compete for league tables points.

This search for improved quality and greater efficiency is not a bad thing. But the cost is out of hand. No one can criticise the painstaking work of auditors and assessors. It is their job to follow the rules and they do that well. It is the system that is at fault - or rather the non-system. No one has designed it or thought of it as a whole.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England and Sir Brian Fender deserve credit for confronting the issue by setting up an "accountability forum" to discuss problems and solutions. There are signs this week that progress is being made, but there is a long way to go.

Everyone agrees that the cost is too great. But how should it be cut? There is a natural tendency within the accountability industry to believe that one's own inspection is essential. Above all, whenever a change is proposed, the mantra is intoned: "Public funds must be protected."

Of course they must, and of course the public has a right to expect high quality. But the public also expects efficiency and economy in audit systems, particularly when the past decade has revealed only a tiny number of problems. Tinkering at the edges to cut costs is not enough. The new "light touch" approach of the Quality Assurance Agency might, with luck, save 6 per cent of its costs. But we need to aim higher. What about an initial target of 20 per cent, or £50 million, across the board?

There is a crucial first step, both for the quality industry and for universities. The present system confuses the provision of information with quality control. Reporting on everything gives lots of out-of-date information.

Statisticians and experts in industrial quality control should be asked to design systems that assure quality through the rigorous inspection of samples.

How could we save £50 million? What about these ideas -some large and some small? All are contentious, but we must start the debate somewhere.

Instead of regular teaching quality assessment, satisfy the need for impartial information by requiring external examiners to approve published descriptions of each course. Replace universal inspection with spot checks. Let the QAA visit a randomly chosen 5 per cent of departments at two days' notice, doing away with rehearsals and the mountains of evidence.

Cut the load on RAE panels by asking for only two publications to be cited. More radically, assess only a randomly chosen 10 per cent of staff submitted in each unit of assessment.

Specify clearly in advance what evidence is needed to show that Hefce special initiative funds have been well spent. Even better, reduce the number of special initiatives and bidding competitions, all of which increase university costs. Rely on the reports of universities' external auditors, supplemented by sample inspections - again 5 per cent would do - to ensure that students are properly counted.

Nothing will happen without political will. But a good step for education ministers would be to require a cost cut of 20 per cent next year and another 20 per cent the year after.

Universities and colleges would have to play their part. Complaints' systems would have to be foolproof. Information would have to be comprehensive and truthful. Universities would need to agree to accept the results of sample inspections - good or bad - without racing to the courts if they felt aggrieved.

None of this will happen easily, but happen it must if the British higher education system is not to sink under its own weight. For the best of intentions, at present, to reverse the mantra, large sums of public money are being wasted. The system is over-engineered; it must be redesigned. What a prize, however, for Sir Howard Newby, as he takes over Hefce, and for education ministers, if they can grasp the opportunity.

Roderick Floud is provost of London Guildhall University and president-elect of Universities UK. He writes in a personal capacity.

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