The quality of debate gets sharper

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quality not

acrimony

It has been with interest and some wry amusement that I have observed the increasingly strident views expressed recently in your columns about the merits, or otherwise, of the Quality Assessment exercises carried out by the Funding Councils in universities and colleges since 1992. The Higher Education Funding Council for England, for which I was Director of Quality Assessment until October 1, has quite rightly not wished to enter into public debate about this topic; with increasingly polarised views being expressed, and in view of my responsibility to continue Quality Assessment until 2000 on behalf of the newly established Quality Assurance Agency, I hope to inject some balance into the discussion.

There is no doubt that the quality assessment exercise is an intrusive process which places an extra burden on academic staff. Some would argue that there has been a great deal of overstatement about the true extent of the burden, which is any case perfectly acceptable in any quality assurance system; others would argue higher education institutions has always been capable of assuring quality and standards and do not need what they perceive to be bureaucratic procedures. What ever the merits of these opposing points of view, it is abundantly clear that successive governments have not been, and will not be, prepared to countenance self-regulation. It is equally clear, even to the sternest critics of Quality Assessment, that the process has produced tangible benefits in raising the profile of teaching in institutions, causing staff to examine their own practice, leading to better staff development in relation to teaching and learning and providing better public information.

The way forward must therefore be, with academic staff becoming more and more hard pressed for a whole range of reasons, to find ways of establishing rigorous internal quality assurance procedures reinforced by decreasing but assiduous but external scrutiny. For this reason amongst others, the QAA has welcomed the Dearing Report. Although it does not provide practical and logistical detail of future methodology, and must itself be the subject of careful scrutiny and consultation, its recommendations do provide a change of emphasis from process to outputs. This, in turn, can provide a means by which the HE sector can develop better internal procedures using existing structures, albeit reinforced by the work of the QAA, and should lead to a reduction in the antipathy and antagonism.

Of course, antipathy and antagonism need not have come about. When I began teaching in 1968, I recognised that an unstated quid pro quo was in operation. I knew that as long I continued to be an academic, I would not be very well paid but I would have the significant advantage of being given great freedom to pursue my own interests, including my research, and to pass that on to students in order to assist their learning. By the time I left my head of department post in 1989, the quid pro quo had begun to disappear entirely. Academics were even more poorly paid in relative terms and, in the pursuit of perfectly laudable objectives related to accountability for the expenditure of large amounts of taxpayers money, were being asked to do much, much more than hitherto. The super imposition of quality audit and quality assessment on to the existing research assessment exercise without anything being given in return was probably the last straw for many.

The time has come to recognise the difficulties under which many academic staff are being asked to perform whilst emphasising the continuing need for rigorous assurance of the quality of the student experience and the academic standards achieved. I believe that the QAA will, in conjunction with the HE sector, be able to exploit the opportunities presented by the Dearing to alleviate some of the burden but preserve the rigour.

Dr Peter Milton

Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education

expose the charlatans

My anonymous critic (Education+, 2 October) accuses me of being amazingly naive, breathtakingly self-satisfied, the passive victim of a deliberate campaign of lying, and of uncertain planetary residence. If only to confirm that I share planet earth with him/her, may I make a brief response.

First of all, why does (s)he think vice-chancellors, heads of departments and academic staff go in for so much lying? Lying about finding the exercise of quality assessment useful is irrelevant to the outcome of an assessment, so what is to be gained? It is a most disturbing assertion that all these responsible people are party to a gigantic sham which, if substantiated, would raise worries about their competence to pass on knowledge and truth to their students. I prefer to have more faith in academic colleagues (call me naive, if you wish), and I take comfort from two recently published independent research projects on the impacts of quality assessment on assessors and institutions.

My critic claims to know lots of academics who regard quality assessment "as a farce". With sadness, I can only conclude that they themselves must be the designers of that farce. The example cited (and apparently there are many more) suggests that my critic knows senior academics who deliberately resort to childish game-playing in order to mislead their peer assessors. That's sad, but don't blame the assessors. Instead, protect our students and call for the exposure of the academic charlatans.

Professor David Weitzman,

Cardiff

grants

not loans

Graduates do pay many times over for the education they receive, through the tax system. If we take Mr Blunkett's suggestion of graduates earning on average 20 per cent more, then over their working life an average graduate will pay over pounds 50,000 MORE in direct taxes alone than a nongraduate. That is around four times the cost of their tuition and more than twice the cost of tuition and maintenance combined if every student were to receive a full grant.

By insisting on students building up personal debt the government are storing up problems for young graduates seeking mortgages. Debts of between pounds 7,000 and pounds 12,000 at the age of 22 are bad enough but a couple with a joint debt of over pounds 20,000 are likely to find that any prospective lender will reduce the amount they are prepared to advance by at least that amount.

Whether they earn enough to start repaying their student loans or not, the proposed further expansion will require even higher tuition fees. But the prospect of increasing student debt even further is surely ridiculous. In declining the most obvious repayment method of increased national insurance contributions for graduates, the government said that the need for funding was too urgent. It now seems apparent that the proposed system will not produce the required funding quickly as the shift from grants to loans is to be phased in and because part of the tuition fee seems likely to be redirected to fund further education. Mr Blunkett still has the option to take the national insurance route. The contribution should be set at a level which will recoup the full cost of tuition and a maintenance grant. All students should be entitled to a properly means-tested grant of up to pounds 4,500 per year, the level recommended by the National Union of Students. This would remove the disincentive of personal debt and could be applied fairly across all income groups. The higher contributions should apply to all who graduated this year and in return their debt should be cleared. EU students could then be charged full fees without treating them unfairly. To provide a further cash injection, all those who graduated last year or earlier with an outstanding loan debt should have the option of refinancing the debt from the private sector, employer or other resources or paying higher national insurance contributions.

Michael Trott

Inkberrow, Worcs

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