Time to end the farce of teaching quality assessments

As the Dearing Committee has pointed out, universities have learnt how to play the assessment system - it has become an expensive waste of time in the service of meaningless league tables. Professor Geoffrey Alderman argues for an immediate halt
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A head of steam is building up among universities. The object of the mounting fury is teaching quality assessment - the government-imposed regime designed to monitor teaching in higher education.

The regime, and the growing opposition to it in practice, date back to 1992. Under legislation passed that year by the Conservative government, the Higher Education Funding Councils were required to provide for assessment in all tax-payer- funded universities. The Welsh, Scottish and English Funding Councils adopted different approaches to comply. The English Funding Council established a Quality Assessment Division which required institutions to submit "self-assessments" and, if they so wished, "Claims for Excellence", on a subject-by-subject basis.

If a claim looked reasonable, a team of academics inspected the "subject provider". In due course, the council published results tables, grading "subject providers" as excellent, satisfactory or unsatisfactory.

Under this regime, well over 90 per cent of all provision "assessed" was deemed to be satisfactory or excellent. The assessment regime was duly pronounced unsound, and reconfigured.

Now all "subject providers" are visited. There are no Claims for Excellence. Instead, provision is assessed under six "core aspects", covering curriculum, teaching, student progression, student support, teaming resources, and quality assurance. Each aspect can be awarded a maximum of four points, up to a total of 24 points overall. The Funding Council publishes the outcomes.

It did not take Sir Ron Dearing and his colleagues long to see this farce for what it really is. As the Dearing Report points out, universities have "learnt" how to play the system. Self-assessments must contain the necessary buzzwords, such as "transferable skills". Assessment visits are planned with meticulous care. Former Funding Council assessors are brought in as advisers, and even to carry out "mock" assessments - especially teaching observations. In short, for the three days to which most assessments extend, a "show" is arranged.

The grades themselves are pretty meaningless. The English Funding Council assesses against "Aims and Objectives" defined by the "subject provider". So universities know that this crucial 500-word statement must be as unsophisticated as possible. Set yourself easy aims and objectives, and watch the assessors award you high marks. It is little wonder that the average grades awarded have been rising steadily since 1995.

No one knows the true cost of quality assessment. The English Funding Council spends between pounds 2 and pounds 3 million annually on the exercise. But to this must be added the cost of the staff time devoted to assessment in the institutions visited. My best "guestimate" is that at my university, the true cost of each visit is not less than pounds 100,000. Next November, we shall have no fewer than three visits.

The original rationale for quality assessments was that the public needed to be provided with information. There may be some in Whitehall who believe that the resulting league tables justify the expenditure. The one undeniable good that has come from quality assessments is that the central importance of a good teaching and learning environment has been prioritised. The fact is, however, that even if a department scores 24 points, no extra taxpayers' money will come its way.

The Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals is currently lobbying the government for an early end to the quality assessments, arguing that pounds 10 million could be saved to the public purse.

The Dearing Committee pointed the gun at quality assessments, but it has not pulled the trigger. Dearing believes that the current assessment programme should continue until it is completed in the year 2001. This will result in yet more waste of scarce resources. Surely, Sir Ron, the time to end this expensive farce is now.

Professor Geoffrey Alderman is Pro Vice-Chancellor at Middlesex University