Watchdog makes case for a guard with teeth, but will it have the bite?

The QAA makes some sound recommendations, but it ducks the most troublesome issues, say Geoffrey Alderman and Roger Brown

May 28, 2009

In Times Higher Education last year, we asked a number of questions about the mechanisms for securing academic standards in the UK ("Is it time to unleash the watchdog to safeguard our degree standards?", 17 July 2008). These were based both on evidence of longstanding weaknesses in institutional quality assurance (most seriously, around student assessment and external examining) and on a number of disturbing individual cases that had come to light, many of them involving apparent interference by managers in academic judgments about student performance. MPs on the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee were sufficiently worried about the situation to launch a wide-ranging inquiry into students and universities, the outcome of which is awaited. In the meantime, the Quality Assurance Agency has produced a report on the subject, Thematic Enquiries into Concerns about Academic Quality and Standards in Higher Education in England (final report April 2009). How far does this report deal with the concerns that have been raised?

The report looks specifically at student workload and contact hours; language requirements, recruitment and admission of international students; the use of external examiners; and assessment practices. While never explicitly acknowledging the concerns raised in the media and elsewhere (there is a somewhat prim reference in the executive summary to the need for "both primary and secondary evidence"), the report makes a number of recommendations designed to allay them. The trouble is, these run in a number of different directions.

Some - such as those addressing admission arrangements for international students - are the usual good-practice guidelines that would be expected from any self-respecting regulatory body. Others are focused on increasing external (and internal) awareness of the various quality controls that currently exist, something that was also a major plank of the Secretary of State for Universities' evidence to the select committee. But the recommendations on assessment are, or at least have the potential for being, much more radical.

The report recommends a review of assessment practices "supported by developmental activities aimed at improving the robustness and consistency of assessment and classification practices within and between institutions", together with clarification and explanation of the reasons for, and meaning of, variation in particular approaches to assessment. These are serious and important, if long overdue, proposals. But will they be accepted by the sector? And how, by whom, and with what degree of urgency, impartiality and rigour will they be carried through?

There is not the space here to go into the details of what is required. Let us take one example. What would happen if, as seems all too likely, there was not found to be a sufficient degree of parity in qualification standards between programmes, departments or even institutions? Would it mean some exam boards, departments or institutions giving greater numbers of highly rated awards, and others fewer? Would some programmes have to teach less or to a lower standard, and vice versa? Should there be changes in resourcing levels and policies, admissions criteria and so on? A combination of some of these changes might put certain programmes out of business. Who will have the final word here, assuming we get this far?

By contrast, the report is disappointing on the subject of external examiners. To declare that the external-examiner process needs to be more transparent and that there should be "further discussion at national level" about training and supporting external examiners is just not good enough. Quite simply, not one of these recommendations goes to the heart of the matter, namely the extreme difficulty that a subject-based process designed for a relatively small and homogeneous sector has in coping with a large, diverse and increasingly modular curriculum. Many earlier reports pointed clearly to these and other deficiencies in what is still claimed to be the main mechanism for assuring comparability and fairness. It is a great pity that the QAA appears to be no more willing than the sector to face up to and address them.

However, the weakest aspect of the report is its failure to tackle the issue that ran through many of the earlier cases, namely the extent to which, in an increasingly competitive and resource-constrained sector, academic decisions and judgments may be being influenced, directly or indirectly, by economic considerations such as student recruitment and retention, income and resourcing, and departmental and institutional reputation. While the proposals in the report (if accepted wholeheartedly and implemented vigorously) may deal with some of the issues that have been raised (by no means for the first time), it is in essence treating the symptoms rather than the disease. The report actually reinforces, rather than undermines, the argument for a powerful, well-equipped and, above all, wholly independent regulatory agency as UK higher education enters a phase that is likely to be more challenging for quality and standards than any that has preceded it.

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