The road to a single quality agency is getting rockier, writes Tony Tysome. Just when vice chancellors and principals thought it was safe to become bored with the politics of quality assurance, the lines are being drawn for yet another battle.
Finding an acceptable compromise between autonomy and accountability has remained elusive, despite the best efforts of the Joint Planning Group which is laying the ground for the creation of a new single quality agency.
Now university and college heads are beginning to complain that the JPG's interim report, published last month, has failed to produce a convincing formula for a new quality regime that will satisfy both the sector and its paymasters. The report proposes three layers of quality assurance - self-regulation by institutions, and regular agency-managed external reviews at institution-wide level, and at subject/programme area level.
"It seems to me the only thing we will save out of this is a postage stamp, since there will be just one agency instead of two," said Leslie Wagner, vice chancellor of Leeds Metropolitan University.
"I cannot see how the proposals will reduce the burden on institutions - indeed, it seems to me they only increase it," he added.
This view is shared by many vice chancellors in England, along with Welsh higher education heads, who have registered their concerns in a letter to the JPG and the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals.
Many are disgruntled over the JPG's proposals for an agency board which would include an equal number of institutional and funding council representatives. But the main criticism is that the quality framework described in the report is at best no more streamlined and efficient than the present multi-layered system of audit and assessment.
Ironically, the key bodies in the political tussle over the new agency's role and the system it will manage are already developing strategies to tackle this problem. Both the Higher Education Quality Council and the Higher Education Funding Council for England have been working on more streamlined quality assurance systems.
The HEQC's preferred model is one which it has been shaping since 1993, in partnership with the National Health Service executive and the Northern and Yorkshire Regional Health Authority. The model, agreed by the HEQC's board but awaiting approval by the NHS, is designed to reduce complexity and duplication in quality assurance systems used by higher education and professional bodies involved in non-medical health care training. It involves all course stakeholders adopting a single framework of areas to be covered by a quality system, a common pattern of gathering evidence of quality, and an agreement over the use of quality data.
The HEQC is hoping its proposals for non-medical health care will be adopted in other professional training areas. A report on the model says the working agreement "may be of wider UK interest in health care education, and the proposals may also be of use in other programme areas with a clear professional/vocational orientation, and therefore of potential interest to the new single quality agency".
Another template for quality monitoring, this time at the level of departmental reviews, has also been produced by the HEQC working with the Engineering Professors' Council. One of the main aims of the project is to provide external bodies with assurance that certain aspects of quality management are in place in departments.
Meanwhile, HEFCE is pushing ahead with its own quality streamlining. Last month, the council carried out its first joint quality visit with a professional body. The visit, at Sheffield University with the Institution of Chemical Engineers, marked the beginning of a series of pilot joint visits to combine quality assessment by the funding council and professional body accreditation.
Paul Clark, HEFCE's director of quality, believes that in this area at least, a template would be inappropriate. "It is about working with institutions and professional bodies to see what they want. We have to meet the needs of professional bodies with quite a range of different quality processes. We need to see how we can dovetail them with ours," he said.
What worries some higher education heads is that the JPG has left the details of how such arrangements are to be developed to the new agency. They fear that under such circumstances, the final shaping of a streamlined quality system will be out of their hands.