In the quest for quality assurance we've lost sight of the fundamentals, argues Roger Brown.
George Santayana famously wrote that a nation ignorant of its own history was condemned to relive it. This would certainly seem to apply to external quality assurance in higher education.
It is little more than a year since the finishing touches were made to the quality framework after nearly three years of hard negotiations between the Department for Education and Employment, the funding councils, the representative bodies and the Quality Assurance Agency.
These negotiations took account of the 1995-96 discussions among the same organisations that had led to the Joint Planning Group Report and the creation of the QAA. Since the introduction of teaching quality assessment in 1992, hardly a year has gone by without some major modification. Have we now got things right or is this just another temporary fix?
The omens are not propitious. The discussion seems to have been driven by a desire to reduce costs, rather than by the need for reasonable confidence in the standards of the awards of UK universities and colleges. It is being conducted to an insanely short timetable and, as usual, behind closed doors with no proper consultation with institutions.
Moreover, a number of those involved were also responsible for the JPGR and the new framework. Are they capable of digging us out of the hole we have made for ourselves by attending to the wrong things?
On the face of it, sampling departments rather than inspecting them seems sensible. But there are technical difficulties, such as fairness between institutions and subjects. This suggests that, rather than making another attempt to patch up assessment, we should return to fundamentals. We should accept, as the Higher Education Funding Council for England appears to have, that comparability of quality, at least in the sense implied by gradings, is unachievable and undesirable in a diverse modern system.
We should also recognise that, while subject communities play their part, academic qualifications are the responsibility of individual institutions. Any effective external regime must therefore focus on the arrangements by which institutions establish, maintain and review the awards they offer.
Finally, we have to choose a method that offers the best level of quality from the financial, human and technical resources available.
Fortunately, we do not need to go far to find this. All parties appear to accept that institutional review will continue to play a key role and to be the main source of public information about quality and standards. Why not take advantage of education secretary David Blunkett's recent intervention in the debate to use the resources "saved" from a "light touch" external approach to create enhanced institutional reviews that look selectively and in greater depth at the issues raised by external reviews, as well as internal processes? This would produce accurate institutional profiles that would also be more reliable because there would be only one review team per institution.
With the additional resources, reviews could be done more fully and more often, so providing better and more up-to-date information. It would also be easier for the QAA to quality control the process.
Such reviews could become the basis for a system of institutional accreditation that would embrace institutional leadership, management and governance, and would be operated, ideally, by a single body genuinely independent of institutions and of government.
What is needed is an approach that cuts through the misleading rhetoric about comparability, is deliverable to a reasonable technical standard and provides external stakeholders with the basic reassurances they need.
Will we make a proper job of it this time? Don't hold your breath.
Roger Brown is principal of Southampton Institute.