New minimum degree standards are to be piloted immediately by the Quality Assurance Agency for higher education, it was revealed this week. Pilots for the so-called "threshold" standards, which will be used as a national yardstick for assessing students' work, are likely to begin this term in chemistry, history and law.
John Randall, QAA chief executive, told The THES he wanted the agency to work "hard and fast" on developing the standards with the help of institutions, professional and statutory bodies and employers. The agency should also be responsible for setting standards for proposed new teaching qualifications for academics, he said.
It was better to give this job to the QAA than the new Institute for Learning and Teaching, which is being set up to accredit training programmes for lecturers in response to recommendations from the Dearing committee.
Mr Randall said it made sense for the agency responsible for developing degree standards to be in charge of training standards for those teaching on degree courses.
Christopher Kenyon, QAA chairman, called on vice chancellors to work in partnership with the agency over standards when he addressed the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals annual residential meeting in Strathclyde this week. He warned them that this was the last chance for the sector to show it could regulate itself.
Mr Randall, who also attended the meeting, said the agency was planning to create a pool of registered "academic reporters" to keep a watch on whether minimum standards were being achieved, as well as fulfilling the traditional role of external examiner.
The reporters, approved practitioners in particular subject areas, will also make judgements about whether objectives to be set for courses, such as the balance between academic and vocational work, are being met.
The information will be invaluable for funding bodies and for students who will be demanding more information about courses once they start paying Pounds 1,000-a-year fees next year.
Professional and statutory bodies will also be encouraged to use the reporters, in an effort to streamline the system.
Alongside this the QAA plans to begin a five-year cycle of institutional reviews, to check the robustness of universities' and colleges' own quality assurance arrangements. The first of these will be the next audits already set up by the former Higher Education Quality Council.
Mr Randall said subject "threshold" standards would have to be set "at a reasonably high level of generality" to avoid excessive bureaucracy or creating what could be seen as a higher education national curriculum.
"There needs to be a common approach, but I do not think we should strive to make everything look the same," he said.
Vice chancellors and lecturers' union leaders are likely to be happier with this than with Mr Randall's plans to involve the QAA in standards setting for the training of academics.
He said a range of units could be developed to test the competence of academics across the whole range of their work, from teaching and research supervision through to guidance and counselling.
Mr Randall said he was aware of opposition among academics to the notion of a competence framework, but added: "What do they want instead, an incompetence framework?" But Paul Cottrell, assistant general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, said: "The board of the QAA does not include any teaching practitioners and it is vital that accreditation is owned by the profession itself - otherwise academics will simply not participate."
CVCP report and Blackstone's speech, page 3
Leader, page 13