Higher Education: Why Self-Regulation Is Not a Soft Option ; the New Changes to Quality Control in Higher Education Will Mean Hard Work for the Universities. and, Writes Lucy Hodges, Students Will Have Their Say on Degree Courses and Campus Facilities
Hodges, Lucy, The Independent (London, England)
Last week, an important announcement slipped out of the Department for Education and Science with no fanfare. Journalists' attention was not drawn to it. It said a new system was being put in place to check up on quality in higher education; the gloss was that students were at the centre of it.
The announcement is important because it brings to a close a dramatic and tortured chapter in higher education policy which saw universities at war with the watchdog that was supposed to monitor them. Peace has broken out between the previously-loathed Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) and the universities.
In the process, much snarling has taken place; the watchdog has had its wings seriously clipped and the previous QAA boss, John Randall, has departed. A huge amount of time and money has been wasted working out a new system that could have been introduced in 1995, say the critics.
The new regime will end the routine assessment of teaching in every department by outsiders. Instead, universities will be audited for how well they do their own quality assessment. "We will be seeking evidence that the institutions are operating effectively their own systems of internal quality assurance," says Peter Williams, the new head of the QAA.
"Those will lead to reports which will state what level of confidence we have in them. I hope the universities realise this is not a soft option. They're going to have to do a lot more work because this depends on them persuading us that they're doing a proper job."
Nevertheless, the universities are overjoyed. In a statement warmly welcoming the new regime, Professor Roderick Floud, president of universities, expressed his pleasure. "This is almost certainly the best news on external quality assurance arrangements the sector has received since 1991," he said. "For the first time in more than a decade, we have a coherent and soundly-based system keyed to identified stakeholder - especially student - needs."
The announcement is a compromise between the politicians and the universities. It is not surprising, however, that the universities are pleased with the outcome. Margaret Hodge, the minister for higher education, is known to have favoured more of a big stick. In the past few weeks, she even was rumoured to have been toying with the idea of Ofsted-style inspectors. The Education Secretary, Estelle Morris, was said to have supported her.
But that notion foundered on an important political consideration - Tony Blair's well-known desire to change the current system that is seen as far too burdensome on the universities. Wouldn't Ofsted- style inspectors lead to more bureaucracy? So, Mrs Hodge had little choice but to accept the deal which had been hammered out.
The reason why it took so long to be approved is thought to be because it stuck in her gullet. She was able to win one or two concessions, however. An early draft had suggested universities could have a say in the "audit trails", when an issue is looked at in detail as part of the audit. That was withdrawn after she objected. Until her intervention, universities were going to be able to point the QAA in the direction of the disciplines that they wanted examined. Now they won't.
During the delay, more refinements were made to the interim arrangements for assessing universities before the new regime is put in place in 2005. The original idea was that every university would have some kind of subject review between 2002 and 2005 while waiting for their first audit under the new system. The Russell group of leading universities complained that there was no point to this, that they had demonstrated they were all right - so why were they being assessed again?
A compromise was reached when the QAA said the interim assessments would not be subject reviews. Instead, they would be "developmental engagements"; not real assessments but a way of preparing universities for the new regime. …