Colleges are not like cheese...
moves to create an index of `maturity' for universities
Thursday 18 April 1996
Both statements reflect an increasing impatience with the present degree of autonomy accorded to higher education in the UK. Mr Forth's problem is that he has no hard evidence on which to justify the very drastic step of a blatant, statutory assault on this autonomy. So the deliberations of the Joint Planning Group (JPG, composed of representatives of the vice- chancellors, college principals and funding councils) on the shape and powers of the proposed single higher-education quality-assurance agency are now assuming a critical importance.
These deliberations are taking place behind closed doors. But a recent smoke signal suggests that discussion has focused on the construction of an index of institutional "maturity". Universities and colleges would be placed in one of four categories. Those deemed to possess comprehensive quality assurance arrangements - systematic, rigorous, well-documented, transparent and, above all, externally auditable - would earn a place in the highest category, subject to much less policing than institutions ranked lower down. Presumably, an institution could secure "promotion" from a lower to a higher category, but could also be "relegated". What is clear is that such a system could only operate on the basis of periodic inspection of all institutions, irrespective of their past "form".
Now some vice-chancellors might warm to such a system. After all, academic audit, carried out by the Higher Education Quality Council, entails visits to all institutions, and it would need but the stroke of a pen to convert its carefully phrased formative judgements into "verdicts", "scores" even, on the basis of which a place would be secured on a league table of maturity.
But before the enthusiasts rush to sign up for this fate, they need to think through what such a system would amount to. Some academics like to think of institutional maturity in much the same terms as the maturity of wine, or cheese: full-bodied excellence develops with age, and ripens over the centuries; the older and smellier the university, the greater its claim to be left alone. What is there to fear, therefore, from the league tables being contemplated by the JPG?
Academics who reason thus might like to reflect that the lesson of academic audit does not point to this conclusion at all. It is precisely from some of the older universities that academic auditors have come away most concerned, having been confronted with ramshackle quality assurance arrangements, not infrequently based on an "oral" law, the text of which is passed by word of mouth from one generation of dons to the next as they drink their port and eat their cheese.
In higher education the time of the gourmet, supreme and unchallengeable, has passed. We live in an age of accountability. In higher education this means we must define the standards by which we work, publish them for the world to see, and set out the machinery we have in place to assure them. Done well, this should enable us to see off threats to institutional autonomy, and the sinister paraphernalia, culled from the worlds of sporting fixtures and haute cuisine, by means of which it is apparently intended that they should be carried into effect.
The writer is head of the Academic Development and Quality Assurance Unit at Middlesex University.
World's most lethal spider found under a bunch of bananas
Rumours that the star wants to move on to pastures new
TV presenter Fiona Bruce seemed a bit startled by the find during the filming of Antiques Roadshow
Comedian says he 'never laughed as hard as I have writing with Rik'
Ebola outbreak: What is bushmeat – and is it to blame for the disease that has killed thousands?
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: Olympic star must serve 10 years, prosecutor urges
Isis fighters 'crucify' 17-year-old boy in Syria
Kentucky gang rape: 15-year-old boy left in critical condition after sexual attack by group at party
Oscar Pistorius sentence: Athlete's wealth and notoriety provoke an overdue debate on South African prisons
Cameron is warned 'no possibility' of UK reducing immigration and that bid to bring in quota on migrant workers would be illegal
Sorry Judy Finnigan – Ched Evans is no less sickening than an alleyway rapist
Residents should throw a street party and mix with immigrant neighbours, councils told
Workers 'could be forced to pay £5 a week' to get benefits
Russell Brand threatened with arrest after filming outside Fox News headquarters
Amal Alamuddin calls for the return of the Elgin Marbles from Britain: 'Injustice has persisted for too long'
- 1 Jack the Ripper: Scientists who claims to have identified notorious killer has 'made serious DNA error'
- 2 Ebola outbreak: What is bushmeat – and is it to blame for the disease that has killed thousands?
- 3 Star Wars memorabilia called a 'bit of plastic' by Antiques Roadshow's Fiona Bruce valued at £50,000
- 4 Meet Thea, Norway's 12-year-old child bride
- 5 Russell Brand might seem like a sexy revolutionary worth getting behind, but he will only fail his fans
£45 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Plymouth: TEACHING ASSISTANTS REQUIRED F...
£110 - £135 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: We are seeking a Drama tea...
£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: We are seeking a languages...
Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: Randstad Education Ltd are seeking KS...