Varsity club prepares to repel all boarders

Tighter rules for an institution to qualify as a university could see existing universities losing their titles.
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What are universities? For most people they are places where students study some of the time and have fun the rest of the time. Ditto academics, though they should be studying most of the time and only having fun on the side. The defining characteristics of universities are that they carry out research and have the power to award their own degrees. The trouble is that non-university institutions in the United Kingdom also have such powers - which has led to confusion in the marketplace and to concern that standards may be being compromised.

For this reason the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) is cracking down. It wants to see the rules tightened so that it is harder for colleges and institutes of higher education to be granted degree-awarding powers and be given the title "university college" and eventually to become universities. But the Agency is going further and asking for a change in the law to enable university status and the power to award degrees to be removed from universities that transgress. Its proposals, now with the Department for Education and Employment, are causing a minor stink.

"This affects everyone, not just aspiring universities," says Geoffrey Alderman, Pro-vice chancellor at Middlesex University. "There are a lot of universities - by no means only new universities - who would fall foul of the proposed criteria. The government has every right to be worried about conferring university status or degree-awarding powers but if we apply these rules, some universities would have their university status stripped from them."

Colleges of higher education that would in the past have been able to wriggle up the hierarchy and jump into the big league are also angry. "I think having greater openness is good," says Roger Brown, Principal of Southampton Institute. "But this goes far beyond what's needed to tighten up on degree-awarding powers. It is in effect proposing a rationalisation of the sector. If ministers accept what the QAA is saying, I can't see how any institution other than an existing university could ever become a university in future. Because of the way research funding is increasingly concentrated you would pretty well have to have the research profile of an existing university to become a university."

One of the biggest blows to the colleges and institutes is the proposal that they should no longer be allowed to award their own research and other higher degrees. Until now, colleges of higher education have been able to aspire to become a university through a three-stage process. First they could seek their own taught, degree-awarding powers; then they could move on to research degree-awarding powers; and finally, they could apply to become a university. Four colleges have already won taught and research degree-awarding powers - Bolton, Cheltenham and Gloucester, Roehampton and Queen Margaret University College in Edinburgh.

"You could get research degree-awarding powers without being a major research institution if you had pockets of research that were of good quality," explains Brown. "That's what the above had done. The effect of what's happening now is that you would have to have a wide range of academically high-quality research to qualify for university status. Not only would we, at Southampton Institute, not make it. Other new universities probably wouldn't qualify either. The QAA is doing ministers' dirty work for them."

Behind the crackdown lies widespread concern about the abolition of the binary line in 1992 when all the polytechnics became universities and when some other institutions which had never even been polys were admitted to the top people's club. The feeling among many in the "old" universities is that the university system expanded too quickly. That feeling was fuelled by Lord Dearing's report which sounded alarm bells about standards and by events at Thames Valley University where a devastating report from the QAA precipitated the abrupt resignation of the vice-chancellor.

At the moment, once universities have been given degree-awarding powers, those powers cannot be removed. That would change, if the DfEE accepts the proposals. Universities which get into trouble should be reined in, the Agency believes. Clearly, the QAA had Thames Valley in mind when it wrote: "Whilst the Agency believes that in general the degree-awarding powers of universities should be unfettered, recent events suggest that there may occasionally be extreme circumstances in which a power to impose conditions might be an appropriate means of bringing about improvements in institutional performance. Such conditions might include the temporary establishment of an academic advisory committee to oversee the exercise of degree-awarding powers."

Both the Standing Conference of Principals (Scop), representing most college principals, and the vice-chancellors' committee reject the idea that the law needs changing to give officials the power to limit degree- awarding powers and remove university status. "There are already a wide range of instruments of university accountability in place," says a spokesman for the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals. "Therefore further legislation regarding revocation of degree-awarding powers is unnecessary."

Scop also rejects the implicit criticism of the colleges that runs through the paper. In reply to the DfEE, it says the colleges provide a student experience comparable to the universities, and, in many cases, of a higher quality. (Seven colleges without degree awarding powers scored higher in teaching quality assessments than half of all universities in eight subject areas). "We think that the proposals are an unnecessary restriction on institutions' potential to develop," says Patricia Ambrose, Scop's executive secretary. "We feel that our institutions are being penalised because of failures at the university level."

Under the proposals now before ministers, colleges that are applying for university or university college status would have to show an unblemished record for the previous five years. That means an institution receiving an unsatisfactory grade in a teaching quality assessment carried out in the five years before their application is made would not qualify.

In addition, any college which has been asked by the QAA to produce an improvement plan in the five years before applying to change its status would also be disqualified. No institution has yet been asked for an improvement plan. The rule was introduced last year: any university or college which receives three or more low-grade 2s in a teaching quality assessment will be asked to produce a plan detailing how they will improve.

Bolton Institute is one college that has been applying to become a university for the past six years and has already been hampered by a poor score in a teaching quality assessment. It received an unsatisfactory grade 1 out of a maximum of 4 for learning resources in media studies in 1996. On reinspection the following year it was found to be performing quite satisfactorily. It remains to be seen whether Bolton will continue to be kept out of the big league.

Observers point to the irony of Bolton's being denied university status when some fully-fledged universities would also fall foul of the new rules. One is the University of East Anglia. If it had applied to become a university under the new edict, it would have been found wanting because it received three 2s in a teaching quality assessment of sociology four years ago. Similarly, the QAA would have taken a dim view of Leeds University which scored a 1 in communication and media studies. (Leeds performed satisfactorily in a reinspection a year later.)

New universities which would have been disqualified are Central Lancashire, East London, Hertfordshire, De Montfort and Thames Valley. All received three grade 2s in teaching quality assessments; East London received three grade 2s in two subjects - electrical and electronic engineering, and communication and media studies.

The QAA's rationale for the proposed new rules is that the previous ones were too broad and too like motherhood and apple pie. "Our overriding concern is that it was not clear what universities and colleges were being expected to demonstrate when they applied for university status or degree awarding powers," says Chris Haslam, QAA assistant director. "We wanted to create greater clarity."

The Agency is also proposing a much more detailed scrutiny of institutions. In place of the current situation where a group of half a dozen vice-chancellors and deputies drop in to a university or college for a day, the QAA envisages the inspectors dipping in and out of the institution for up to a year, checking on validation procedures, faculty and exam board meetings.

Some academics are behind this tough approach. One is Alan Smithers, Sydney Jones Professor of Education at Liverpool University, who believes that degree-awarding powers should be restricted and only passed on to other institutions after a long period of tutelage in the same way as polytechnics gained that right through a long period of working with CNAA.

"The Government and the QAA are right to be cautious," he says. "For good research you need a critical mass of talent. Higher education is also largely funded by public money. We should not spread that too thinly. University status and degree-awarding powers should not be handed out like Green Shield stamps."

e-mail: lucy@scribbl.demon.co.uk

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