Education: Who Inspects the Inspectors? Monitoring Quality in Higher Education Requires Consistent Standards
Alderman, Geoffrey, The Independent (London, England)
Few issues exercise academics as much as the constant monitoring they have become subject to during the 1990s. The Dearing Review set the ball rolling, and earlier this year the new Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) released a glossy consultation document setting out its views on how the Dearing quality agenda could be put into operation.
We now know that well before the deadline set for responding to this consultation document, the QAA had already rethought its strategy. In a confidential paper dated 6 May, the QAA chief executive, John Randall, signalled a comprehensive retreat from the command-and-control regime previewed in the consultation exercise. We are now promised a much lighter touch: institutions will assess their own quality, and the rigour of this process will, quite rightly, be checked periodically by the QAA.
I am sure we have not heard the last of this story, in which several chapters have still to be written. One of these must focus on the extent to which the QAA is itself quality-assured. Dearing was ominously silent on this subject. It is now time to address the issue.
At the moment the major activity of the QAA is to undertake inspections of the quality of education on a subject-by-subject basis. Unless an inspection results in a formal verdict of "unsatisfactory", there is no right of appeal against the judgements of the inspection team.
These teams operate under a type of delegated authority and the scores they award need no further ratification. Errors of fact in a draft inspection report will be corrected, but the scores awarded against each aspect of provision inspected will not be altered once they are announced orally at the end of the inspection visit, no matter how many errors of fact and interpretation the inspectors have made.
Nor does the QAA have any machinery in place to give reassurance to the sector, and the public, that its inspectors all inspect to the same standard. …