Watchdog warning over state intrusion

July 16, 2004

QAA chair says self-review at risk if standards aren't upheld. Phil Baty reports.

Universities could face intrusive Ofsted-style inspections if the current system for monitoring academic standards cannot show it is truly independent, the new chair of the higher education watchdog has warned.

The prospect of an end to the tradition of relying on fellow academics to ensure standards are maintained was raised by Sam Younger, the chairman of the Quality Assurance Agency. His comments signal that the QAA would continue to take an uncompromising approach to reporting on standards as the counterbalance to its "light-touch" audit regime.

In an article in the QAA's newsletter, Mr Younger says the agency could be replaced by a more interventionist statutory body, such as the Government's watchdog for school standards, Ofsted, if its peer-review system is not seen to be rigorous in clamping down on low standards and questionable practices.

"There are plenty of examples of areas of public life where the viability of self-regulation is called into question," he said.

"The newspaper industry is a case in point, where each major episode of questionable journalistic behaviour raises doubts over whether the self-regulatory framework is sustainable."

Writing after the Government confirmed that it would undertake a sweeping review of the academic standards regime before top-up fees are introduced in 2006, Mr Younger says: "The agency needs to protect and sustain a real measure of independence if it is to protect the sector from demands for statutory external regulation, which would risk undermining the advantages of peer review."

Mr Younger, who took up the QAA chair in January and attended his first board meeting in March, writes of his initial hesitation about taking the job. "Did I really want to be involved with an organisation whose work was perceived by many in the sector as at best a necessary evil?"

He had been encouraged to find a strong peer-review system, vital to the credibility of the QAA.

He adds: "The flexibility to respond to changing circumstances and needs is critical to the success of the agency and its relationship with higher education institutions. At the same time, it must never lose its essential independence of those institutions."

Last month, Alan Johnson, the Higher Education Minister, said that as the sector moved towards a post-top-up fees world from 2006 "it may prove timely to consider anew the overarching higher education accountability framework". This would be necessary, he said, "to assure ourselves that we have in place the best possible arrangements to build and protect strong institutions while maintaining public confidence and safeguarding public expenditure".

His comments are published in the Government's response to a report by the Better Regulation Review Group.

phil.baty@thes.co.uk

SELF-REGULATION vs STATE INTERVENTION

Self-regulation

  • The QAA is funded by subscriptions from universities and colleges
  • The agency is a company with charitable status that is owned and run by the institutions through the vice-chancellors' and principals' umbrella bodies
  • It operates through a system of peer review, with academics taking part-time positions as reviewers
  • The QAA runs a cycle of institution-wide audits once every six years in a "light-touch" check on universities' own internal mechanisms for ensuring standards.

State intervention - the future?

  • A state higher education inspectorate would be funded by central Government
  • It would probably be set up as a non-ministerial Government department, established by law, in a similar fashion to the Office for Standards in Education, which monitors school standards
  • The system of inspection would probably be run by professional inspectors appointed by the Government
  • It would be likely to run a more interventionist and intense programme of scrutiny, less trust based and more evidence based.

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