Vc-s battle for campus autonomy

January 14, 2000

Vice-chancellors were preparing to battle for university autonomy this week as more complained of being "stampeded" into a deal with quality watchdogs.

An agreement struck last week by the Quality Assurance Agency, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and funding council chiefs on a new quality assurance blueprint came under increased pressure as Welsh vice-chancellors said they would delay joining the system for two years.

Some English vice-chancellors have condemned the plans for reporting the quality of teaching as "unworkable" and called for the programme to be put back to allow for "proper" consultation.

A heated debate on the CVCP's handling of negotiations is expected at its January 28 board meeting.

Sir John Kingman, vice-chancellor of Bristol University, added his voice to his counterparts at University College London and Oxford and Durham universities in attacking the proposals.

He accused the CVCP's executive, led by chief executive Baroness Warwick and president Howard Newby, of "abandoning" its opposition to "summative" judgements on quality and complained that the QAA had ignored vice-chancellors' views.

He said: "I am disappointed with the way the chief executive has handled this. There is a gap between the senior management of the CVCP and the universities. They are obviously out of touch with the strength of feeling within universities on this issue."

John Williams, chairman of the Heads of Higher Education Wales (the Welsh arm of the CVCP), and principal of the North East Wales Institute of Higher Education, revealed that the HHEW's members had decided to abandon plans for their institutions to be assessed under the new system from October this year and to wait until January 2002.

The QAA said this would mean all subject reviews would have to be compressed into two years, increasing the load.

Professor Williams said his view was that the autonomy of institutions was under threat because the CVCP had succumbed to pressure for summative judgements from the government and the funding councils.

"It is an erosion of autonomy. If the CVCP is having to capitulate, then someone else is winning - and it is not the sector," he said.

Sir Alec Broers, vice-chancellor of Cambridge University, welcomed the Welsh delay and suggested that the sector take more time to get it right.

"We are being stampeded into this process when we need to consider it more carefully," he said.

Professor Newby denied that the system would use "summative" judgements. Rather than an overall summary of a department's provision it would simply be "approved" or "not approved", he said. Three areas of provision - teaching and learning, student progression and learning resources - would then be rated as "commendable", "approved" or "failing", with a sub-category of "exemplary" applied to particular features of provision.

He admitted that the proposed scheme was "not a system the universities would have devised left to their own devices". But the CVCP had to take account of the funding councils' interests, which were backed by legislation, he said.

"The legislation contains reserve powers for the funding councils and one has to be aware of that," he added.

Other vice-chancellors this week indicated that they would go along with the proposed system, although they did not like it.

Sir Brian Follett, vice-chancellor of Warwick University, said: "We are concerned that the understated descriptions used will not give much support to universities or government agencies that are striving to present UK education as a high-quality brand overseas."

Michael Goldstein, vice-chancellor of Coventry University, described the agreement as "the best of a bad job", while Michael Wright, vice-chancellor of Aston University, described it as a "retrograde step, but better than the original proposal".

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