View from both ends of the audit trail

August 5, 2005

The audited

"Claims that the system is 'light touch' are just not borne out by experience," said Fraser Reid , associate head of Plymouth University's School of Psychology, who has just taken the department through a dreaded "discipline audit trail".

After taking the same school through the old, discredited teaching quality assessment system in 1999, he could not see much difference.

"The consensus here is that the audit trails are negligibly different from the old TQA," he said.

Dr Reid's department was one of four to be selected for "drilling down" during the Quality Assurance Agency's audit of the whole institution earlier this year - and a favourable report on the institution was published last week.

But the process was unnecessarily painful for Dr Reid, director of taught programmes in psychology, despite putting his school in a good light.

"We received notification that psychology would be included in the audit only about two months before the QAA came to visit," he said.

"So we had just a few weeks to prepare a self-evaluation document."

These documents are supposed to be a few thousand words, he explained, "but the stakes are so high you leave no stone unturned - you feel compelled to produce the best possible report".

"It is a political game where you get lots of Brownie points for scoring well, so you don't want to let anyone down.

"And the idea that the QAA only wants to see available documentation is absurd," he said.

"They still want a base room full of paper, including examples of student work."

The auditor

"There was no feeling while we were carrying out discipline audit trails that they were a complete waste of time," said Nicola Channon , head of operations at the QAA's reviews group.

"There is no doubt that they have been useful. But it will certainly reduce the burden on institutions when we do away with them."

The abolition of the discipline trails will make life much easier for Ms Channon - as organising and training subject specialists to cover all disciplines, even when some disciplines will never be chosen for "drilling down", was a logistical nightmare.

But much more significantly, universities will be relieved of a number of painful demands. The least missed element of the Dats will surely be the production of "self-evaluation documents" for each of the several disciplines to be "trailed".

These documents - 3,000 words long but often the product of numerous staff-hours - are often demanded by the QAA at nine weeks' notice, before an audit visit.

Departments will no longer have to retain and provide samples of students' work, and will miss the afternoon-long grilling by the QAA auditors.

"It is too early to predict exactly what we'll replace Dats with, but we need to be clear that we still need to be able to talk to staff and students at discipline level."

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