Last year, the Government agreed to the establishment of a Joint Planning Group (JPG) of representatives of the vice-chancellors and funding councils, to map out the shape of a single-quality assurance body to control the audit, assessment and inspection activities performed by the sector-owned Higher Education Quality Council, the government-controlled funding councils and professional and statutory bodies.
The first report of the JPG, published in April, says nothing about linking funding to the outcomes of teaching quality assessments, concentrating instead on the constitution of the proposed single agency, with which the funding councils will have service-level agreements. But behind the scenes, this has been a topic of debate.
Throughout the JPG's deliberations, the Government has been preoccupied with imposing on the higher-education sector its particular model of the market-place, with funding linked to subject assessment.
The "graded profiles" in which the agency-managed subject reviews would result, are to be used to construct a league-table, for the delectation of the public, no doubt, but primarily to inform funding, and to do so, ostensibly, on the basis of quality.
But as the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) recently emphasised, the process by which information on quality in higher education is gathered for use in informing funding decisions will be crucial to the success and credibility of the exercise. Institutions need to feel secure about the process: but so does the Government, and the public.
It was mounting public disquiet about the methodology used by HEFCE when teaching quality assessment was first introduced (1992) that led to the radical overhaul of that methodology last year. The quality of subject provision is now graded in terms of aims and objectives which institutions themselves define.
The threshold for approval of quality is set at 12 points out of 24. But even where an assessment team awards maximum marks, all this means (compilers of league tables please note) is that the team felt that the institution concerned was fully meeting its own standards. This is not a system that easily lends itself to a "quick fix" formula-driven funding regime. And so, within the JPG, the Government has been pressing for agreement that the proposed new single quality-assurance agency would itself articulate and have ultimate control of academic standards.
The DfEE regards the integration of standards with quality as a prerequisite for its desired funding regime. It makes no secret of its impatience with those who defend academic autonomy in terms of the historic individual responsibility of institutions for the standards of their awards.
The Government had made public protestation of its respect for this autonomy, but now argues for collective responsibility, ostensibly agreed by institutions in dialogue with subject communities. In reality, the responsibility will reside in the hand of the new quality agency. So the constitution of the agency is crucial.
What is proposed is a board of directors numbering 14 persons, of whom only four would be nominated by the representative bodies of higher education institutions; four would be nominated by the funding bodies and six would be "independent". The higher education sector will be in a minority on the board. We can be reasonably certain that the first "independent directors" will be persons whom the Government regards as persona grata, and that it will use a battery of financial arguments to ensure their replacements continue to be so. In practice, the decisions of the board of directors will be heavily influenced by the desires of government.
Make no mistake about it: the JPG's proposals amount to the nationalisation of higher education, with no respite from the burden of audit and assessment. The universities should think long and hard before accepting the package.
The writer is head of the Academic Development and Quality Assurance Unit at Middlesex University.
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