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The buzz-word of the Nineties in higher education is "quality". We have quality research, quality teaching, quality audits, quality students in quality institutions; and we ensure it is maintained by quality assurance mechanisms that are monitored by quality control groups. We even have a quality assurance agency, to help us sleep more easily in our beds, untroubled by nightmares about unimproved quality.

With all this going on, it seems almost churlish to ask why so many of us are sceptical. Obviously, the bottom line is that students are entitled to a good education, academics are entitled to good working conditions and the taxpayer is entitled to value for money from universities. Also having some form of peer review of teaching, research output and infrastructure is a good thing. But in pursuit of this chimera, we are in danger of creating a monstrous, Kafka-esque system in which teams of assessors trundle in perpetuity round the country's universities inspecting quality. Or rather, inspecting what they tell us quality ought to be. Because there are all sorts of definitions of quality. For a start, universities should prioritise teaching and learning, we are told. No point in saying that this is what universities have been doing for a thousand years. These days, you have to fill in the forms that prove you have demonstrable quality learning outputs.

What is happening in higher education is a dumbing down of the whole system, under the pretext of improving quality for all. The myth is being circulated that all British universities are, and should be, identical in terms of quality. This is a good selling-point for ministers who want to persuade overseas students to part with their cash and come to Britain. But it is patently untrue. There are bad universities, good universities and excellent universities and no amount of juggling of statistics is going to make those differences go away. The reality is that in all universities countless hours are spent preparing paperwork to demonstrate the quality of teaching or of research. Weak universities want to show that they are as good as Cambridge, or Warwick, and so pour their efforts into making sure they score where the paperwork is concerned. Because what counts in all this quality control business is knowing how to get the documentation right. You can prove that geese are swans, if you learn the jargon effectively.

So the people who have been promoted because they were reckoned to be the best teachers or researchers can no longer do either because they are too busy preparing the documentation. Ensuring quality is ensuring jobs (a lot better paid than academics' jobs, too) for people who never managed to win many accolades for their own research or teaching and, increasingly, for people who have never taught or researched anything in their lives. There is a whole new cadre of university bureaucrats living comfortably off the quality industry.

All this is presented as being in the interests of students. But I believe students get a raw deal. For a start, their tutors are having to put most of their energy into dealing with the bureaucracy.

Well over 70 per cent of my time goes on paperwork these days. In many institutions, one way round this is to employ postgraduates to do most of the teaching, leaving senior academics time to fill in more quality control forms. Students may go to a university to work in a department made famous by dedicated scholars and teachers, and rarely meet them. The sheer amount of work that students are expected to do has dropped radically over the past decade. Amid all the talk of maintaining quality despite rising numbers, it is easy to forget how the operation has been managed. One way has been a reduction in student workload. Let's take a hypothetical example: if a group of 15 students writes six essays a year, that is a total of 90 essays for the tutor to mark. Increase that group to 30, put them in a larger lecture room, and they can still have the same contact hours. The university can say, with honesty, that the standards of teaching remain the same. But there is no way that the same tutor can be expected to mark 180 essays in the same amount of time. What happens? The essay requirements are cut. Thirty students writing four essays a year still gives the tutor an increased workload, but the impact on the students is a reduction in hours of work.

I am reminded every day of Hans Andersen's emperor, who was conned into believing that he had the finest robes in creation until he was exposed as naked by a small child. It is time the students themselves blew the whistle on all this quality-speak before it damages higher education beyond repair.

Let there be peer reviews by all means, and let's insist that universities set up the sort of rigorous self-monitoring systems that we have in place at Warwick. But let's call a halt to the procession of naked fat cats funding their timeshares in Tenerife on quality assurance, so that we can get back to doing what universities are supposed to do - ie educating the next generation.

The writer is pro-vice-chancellor of the University of Warwick.

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