Big Brother in a different suit?

A new agency to check up on standards in universities will increase the burden of government interference, academics fear. Lucy Hodges reports
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The Independent Online
Next week a new body concerned with monitoring quality and standards in English, Welsh and Northern Irish universities comes into being. Its birthday may be April Fool's Day but the creation of the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education is no joke, representing as it does the latest attempt to check up on higher education and ensure that students are achieving as they should.

The gestation of the agency has been fraught and its birth is surrounded by uncertainty. It has yet to recruit a chief executive and its early months will be taken up with developing a modus operandi. Lurking in the wings is Sir Ron Dearing, who is expected to have robust things to say about standards in his mammoth review of higher education to be published later this year. The body will have to implement any recommendations on standards accepted by a future government.

The agency is supposed to reduce the burden on academics who felt they were being assessed and audited to death by the two existing systems. But it is doubtful that the burden will be much reduced, and concern is being expressed as to whether the outfit will be truly independent of government. Indeed, Big Brother may watch over universities even more.

The agency is being set up as a company limited by guarantee and is to be registered as a charity. It will contract with the Higher Education Funding Councils and universities to carry out assessments of subject areas and reviews of institutions. But some in higher education are worried that the Department for Education and Employment will begin to poke its nose into its affairs and seek observer status on the board. "If that happened, it would be a thoroughly retrograde step and detract from its credibility," says Geoffrey Alderman, head of academic development and quality assurance at Middlesex University. "Legally, too, the department could be on thin ice."

Universities are keen to guard against interference. A hallmark of academic endeavour is that it should be free of political control, and universities are sensitive to suggestions that their autonomy might be eroded, particularly at a time when the Government is stealthily exerting more control over higher education in the name of increased accountability and higher standards. Which is why the universities are worried about a letter that Education Secretary, Gillian Shephard, wrote earlier this month to Sir William Fraser, who chaired the planning group behind the new outfit.

Mrs Shephard wrote that the issue of standards in higher education was of considerable importance to the Government. "We believe that the prime responsibility for assuring quality and standards in the sector rests with institutions ... However, the Government has a responsibility to satisfy itself that the arrangements in place are operating effectively. We believe therefore there is a need to consider communication mechanisms between the Government and the agency." (It is understood that the Government, through some oversight in the planning, failed to secure observer status on the board: hence the last-ditch plea for "communication mechanisms".)

It is clear that there will be enormous pressure on the agency from all directions: from those who fund universities and those who work in them, from the politicians, maybe even from students and their parents. Its new chairman, Christopher Kenyon, who runs a Manchester manufacturing company, says: "The agency must take its own line as independently as circumstances allow and it will stand or fall on that."

Another big concern is cost. At present there are two bodies that check on quality, the Higher Education Quality Council, set up by the vice-chancellors, which audits universities to ensure that they have quality mechanisms in place, and the Higher Education Funding Councils of England, Wales and Scotland, which assess the quality of teaching. These bodies are being merged in the interests of streamlining quality review. The total cost of these activities today is around pounds 10m.

The new body replaces these two organisations. One might expect, therefore, that it would save some money; but because the two quality systems will continue to run in tandem until October 1998, when a new system replaces them, it will not. "It will not save a bean," says Peter Knight, vice- chancellor of the University of Central England. "We will simply be writing to one address instead of two.

"The real cost is, of course, the cost to institutions of going through these exercises for negligible return. That will just continue."

Another complaint - this time from Lesley Wagner, vice-chancellor of Leeds Metropolitan University - is the failure to include a vice-chancellor of a new university on the board. This is odd, he thinks, in view of the new universities' longer experience of quality assessment.

Others are concerned at the suggestion that the new auditors might be freelance operators plucked from the ranks of financial and management consultancy, similar to the Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education) inspectors. Mr Kenyon was quick to scotch that rumour as "totally unfounded".

Dr Knight is also worried about the breadth of the agency's remit, covering as it does all quality issues in higher education. At the moment, teacher training is assessed by Ofsted under contract to the Teacher Training Agency. "I have had rows with them in the past," he says. "I will have rows with them in the future, but it's a system I trust and respect."

He wonders what will happen to the university's health service contracts to provide training for nurses, midwives and radiographers, and its full- cost courses, all of which have their terms enshrined in legally binding documents. He thinks the agency does not have rights to monitor quality in these areas, and that if it does it will be intruding into others' business.

Before 1990, the old universities were not subject to systematic external scrutiny of their teaching and learning. The new universities were overseen by the Council for National Academic Awards and inspected by Her Majesty's Inspectorate. Generally, the political atmosphere in which institutions operated was benign and trusting. All that has changed with increasingly centralised government control of education, the abolition of the polytechnics and the explosion in student numbers.

The public has begun to ask hard questions about whether a degree at one university is equal to a degree at another. Eyebrows have been raised at what is known as grade inflation - the increasing proportion of students getting Firsts and Upper Seconds. Student complaints are on the rise. And the new agency will have to tackle such issues.

As Sir Ron Dearing said last week at a conference on the new agency: "We owe it to the student - who is typically committing three years of his or her life, and probably securing a substantial overdraft into the bargain, as well as the sacrifice of three years' potential earnings - to offer both a quality of experience and awards that have standing in the marketplace. The student is ill-equipped to judge between one department and another."

Employers are pressing for threshold standards to be set, so that everyone would know what had to be attained for the award of a degree. It is generally agreed that the external examiner system has had its day. "It was not devised to safeguard standards in a society practising mass higher education and conscious diversity," said Sir Ron.

Heading the agency - sitting on a bed of nails - will be a new chief executive, as yet unappointed. The post has been advertised at a salary of around pounds 60,000 a year, less than the pounds 80,000 received by Anthea Millett of the Teacher Training Agency, the pounds 77,000-plus received by Nick Tate of the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority and the pounds 79,000-plus paid to John Hillier, chief executive of the National Council for Vocational Qualifications. It is also significantly less than the salary of Roger Brown, who runs the soon-to-be-closed Higher Education Quality Council - he is on just under pounds 80,000 a year.

Concern has been raised about whether such a salary is enough for someone who will have to deal on an equal basis with highly paid vice-chancellors and sort out how to merge the functions of audit done by the HEQC and assessment done by the funding councils, not to mention the thorny new issue of standards. Mr Kenyon says the salary will not be a barrier to appointment. "It has been clearly stated that a higher salary will be available to an outstanding candidate," he says

We'll wait and see, say Scots

The Scottish have their own arrangements for keeping tabs on the quality of their universities and colleges and have so far declined to come in with the new agency in England and Wales.

To some extent that is because of the uncertainty resulting from the coming election, which could, if Labour wins, lead to constitutional change. But it is also because Scotland has different practices arising from its smaller higher education system and its different history and culture.

North of the border, for example, assessments of the quality of teaching are carried out every six years, whereas in England they are being run on an eight-year cycle, mainly for cost reasons. The Scottish are planning to conduct assessments even more frequently - every five years. "The provision of public information that is as up-to-date as possible is an important objective," Professor John Sizer, chief executive of the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council, said last week. "Scotland would not wish to see its assessment cycle prolonged unnecessarily."

But Scotland is not ruling out buying into the new agency at a later date, when it can see how it plans to go about its business. Ron Emmanuel, director of quality assurance at Glasgow University, thinks the Scottish system will move very close to the English and Welsh model whatever happens