Macho? No - but Mr Randall has standards

A new verb has entered the lexicon of higher education policy wonks: to "randallise". It comes from "John Randall", chief executive of the Quality Assessment Agency, and means to be macho, or tough. Some people in the universities see Mr Randall as taking them on and trying to get them to pull their socks up. He talks a lot about accountability, for example, and about how higher education needs to explain itself to employers.

Not all academics care for such talk. At a consultation meeting in Glasgow in April Mr Randall came across as pretty authoritarian, according to Peter Breeze, a member of Association of University Teachers executive. "You got the impression that everything was there for institutional managers and students and that the academics should do what they were told to satisfy one group and do the bidding of the other," says Breeze.

John Randall himself, formerly director of professional standards at the Law Society, laughs at the notion that he is doing to academics what Chris Woodhead , the tough speaking and controversial Chief Inspector of Schools does to teachers he thinks aren't up to it.

"The only thing that Chris Woodhead and I have in common is that we went to the same secondary school 30 years ago," he says. "There's an important difference between what Chris Woodhead and I are doing. He is working within a structure of a national curriculum, so it's relatively easy to make judgements about whether schools are succeeding in getting their pupils to the standards laid down. We don't have a national curriculum in higher education, nor should we. There's a huge amount of diversity and a lot of the teaching is driven by research, so it will differ from institution to institution. That means you have to define quite carefully what you're trying to look at."

John Randall comes from a different world from most academics. Intelligent and forthright, he was a member of the National Council for Vocational Qualifications for five years and in his early career was president of the National Union of Students.When he arrived at the QAA a number of prominent officials left. But he knows when to compromise, and has been quick to put his finger up to the wind. Hence his agency's speed in switching the emphasis from more central control to less. "I am concerned to establish a workable consensus that allows a proper balance to be struck between processes of peer review in institutions within an overall framework in which the public and all stakeholders can have confidence," he says.

Not all academics are critical. Phil Jones, dean of law at Sheffield University, who had dealings with Randall when he was at the Law Society, claims that he has won the respect of vice-chancellors around the country for the way he has been prepared to meet and talk to them and modify his proposals in the light of their comments.