Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Hefce Quality Plans 'Risk More Direct Government Control'

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Hefce Quality Plans 'Risk More Direct Government Control'

Article excerpt

Contract details bring criticism, but funding council defends 'normal practice'. John Morgan reports

England's funding council is mounting a "worrying move for power in the sector" with its plans to outsource quality assurance.

That is the view of critics after detailed scrutiny of the terms and conditions issued for the quality assurance work by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which insists that the contracts "reflect normal commercial practice".

The work is being put out to tender in six packages. Commercial operators Tribal and Capita are said to be potential bidders, while the Quality Assurance Agency is also seeking to retain at least some work.

Hefce's critics argue that its ultimate goal is to take quality assurance in-house - which they fear could end the "co-regulatory" system as currently led by the QAA, along with the UK-wide system that some believe is key to British higher education's "brand" overseas.

The funding council is viewed by some in the sector as seeking to carve out a greater role for itself as it faces, under government plans, being merged with the far smaller Office for Fair Access to create the new Office for Students.

But Hefce's moves could end up bringing quality assurance closer to government power, critics fear.

Four of the six contracts will include a mutual one-year break clause that could allow Hefce to walk away quickly; all the contracts grant Hefce intellectual property rights over documents and computer software prepared or developed by contractors in the provision of "products"; and the contracts will tie the contractors to Hefce's "successor" body.

Contract is 'a shocker'

Gill Evans, emeritus professor in medieval theology at the University of Cambridge, said: "I found the contract a shocker. It would remove all independence from any contracting supplier and make it simply a long arm of Hefce. It would give Hefce control of the intellectual property in materials created by any contractor to support quality assessment, whereas the current materials belong to the QAA."

Professor Evans said that under the contract terms, "the contracting party agrees to go on working with any 'successor' body to Hefce, and we all suspect that Hefce is hoping to be transferred into the Office for Students and [in essence] take that over, too".

Critics have suggested that the one-year break clause also shows Hefce catering for the possibility that the government will squash its plans by moving to protect UK-wide quality assurance in the forthcoming higher education White Paper. …

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