Dons award each other top marks

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The Independent Online
University lecturers who assess their colleagues' teaching performances under a government inspection scheme are awarding each other strikingly high marks, new figures have revealed.

Of more than 280 departments visited in the past year under the system, only two have failed to have their courses approved.

The average score for teaching and learning in universities ranging from the oldest and most revered to former polytechnics, is three-and- a-quarter points out of a possible four.

Three courses, Russian and Eastern European studies at Sheffield, German at Exeter and sociology at Sussex, have received the full four marks in all of the six categories assessed.

Some critics have voiced concern that lecturers, who are being judged against their own aims and objectives, can set low standards for themselves and so are unlikely to fail.

Lecturers are also being coached for their assessments by private companies set up for the purpose. Officials have expressed unease about the practice, which some critics believe may be leading to higher results.

Some senior figures connected with the inspection scheme have suggested privately that it is a failure.

One, who did not want to be named, said that universities had learned how to manipulate the system so that they could do well out of it.

"It's deplorable," he said. "Institutions are learning how to play the game. These people are academics because they are clever, and they are spending their time learning how to exploit this process."

Since April 1995, almost 300 departments in nine subject areas have been visited by assessment teams. A chemical engineering lecturer, for example, might judge his colleagues' work one week before defending his own department in a similar inspection.

Even those who believe the assessments have helped to raise standards admit that this practice of "peer review" is far from perfect. The assessors tend to sympathise with their colleagues' problems and to feel very uncomfortable about criticising them, they say.

Peter Milton, associate director in the quality assessment division of the Higher Education Funding Council, which oversees the inspections, said the system had its drawbacks.

"The council is well aware of the limitations of peer review," he said. "There are pressures on the people involved, pressures exerted by the fact that academics understand only too well the constraints in which their colleagues are working."

He added that he felt "ambivalent" about the practice of coaching university lecturers in dummy runs of teaching quality assessments.

"There's nothing wrong with universities taking time to train their staff, but given that academics are under considerable pressure we would not want to see too much time spent practising," he said.

In defence of the system, he argued that each department had its aims and objectives published so that others would be able to see if they were unambitious. In fact, very few had set easy goals for themselves, he said.

The high grades might be an indication that standards were rising as a result of the inspection process, he said.

"There are always ways in which you can improve a new system. It would be crazy to say we have reached the point where we are happy with the whole thing."