Colleges are not like cheese...

moves to create an index of `maturity' for universities
On 12 March, at a conference on academic standards, the minister for higher education, Eric Forth, affected to read the riot act to university vice-chancellors, accusing them of having joined "the international bullshit league" when they spoke of the high quality of their academic programmes; he questioned whether academic standards were pitched at "the right level". Eight days later, Bahram Bekhradnia, director of policy at the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), signalled to a conference addressing ways of reviewing academic departments the HEFCE's unhappiness with its limited ability to influence the volume of provision at subject level.

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.