Education: When good results come at a price: The Government cannot have all-round quality from universities on the cheap, says Geoffrey Alderman

The Government's preoccupation with quality in higher education has been emphasised in recent months by a series of public pronouncements and private initiatives. Higher education institutions, too, have a set of quality concerns - but they are not necessarily identical to those of the Department for Education.

April's speech by John Patten, then Secretary of State, to the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) reflected a line of thinking that has ruffled feathers throughout the sector. Mr Patten revealed that he had been having 'informal discussions' with 'representatives' of the Higher Education Quality Council (HEQC, the quality-assurance body) about the need 'to place much more emphasis on broad comparability in the standards of degrees offered by different institutions'.

The HEQC, more especially through its academic audit arm, the Division of Quality Audit (DQA), is one of the success stories of British higher education in recent years. The DQA operates a system of peer review of quality-assurance mechanisms and commands wide respect, not least because it is non-confrontational; its reports help institutions to improve their systems through a species of critical profiling, not league tables.

If Mr Patten's April exhortation was accepted by the HEQC, academic auditors would have a new, supplementary agenda when they do their rounds. They would politely inquire of institutions what mechanisms they had in place to ensure 'broad comparability' of standards.

Cambridge University would be asked how it ensured that a First in its History Tripos was of the same standard as a First in History at, say, the University of Derby. Derby would be asked a similar question. If either institution said it had no such mechanism, it would be asked why not. The replies would make fascinating reading.

Institutions are also considering their responses to the HEFCE's consultation document on quality assessment. Since the 1992 Education Act, the HEFCE has been assessing the quality of education on the basis of a rolling programme of subjects. Institutions must submit 'self-assessments', to which they may append 'claims for excellence'. Visits are made, and reports of these may be purchased by members of the public.

Quality audit is concerned with process. Assessment is concerned with quality. Assessment results not merely in a report, but also in a grade: unsatisfactory, satisfactory or excellent. League tables have already appeared. Institutions in the former polytechnic sector had been subject to visits by government inspectors; except in relation to teacher education, Her Majesty's Inspectorate never visited universities.

In the 'traditional' universities, the prospect of assessment visits, albeit by fellow academics, was viewed with trepidation; 'the revenge of the polys' was how one colleague put it. But matters have not turned out that way.

An analysis of the first 120 assessment reports published by the HEFCE, covering history, law, chemistry and mechanical engineering, reveals that of the 49 gradings of excellent, only seven went to non-traditional universities; in history, no former polytechnic obtained this grading. Moreover, the lion's share of 'excellents' has gone to departments given the highest gradings - five or four - in the 1992 research rankings exercise.

If the Government hoped assessment visits would provide support for the view that excellence in teaching can be divorced from excellence in research, it must be deeply disappointed. Many former polytechnics feel that assessment teams, in spite of protests to the contrary, have applied a 'gold standard' derived from the old-established academic traditions, and have not paid enough attention to diversity of mission.

The circumstantial evidence for this view is certainly strong. But my own feeling is that a much subtler set of mechanisms has been at work, especially when we remember that care is taken to ensure that assessment teams are mixed, drawing members from old and new universities.

I have more than a sneaking suspicion that what we are looking at is fundamentally an issue of resource, that it is the better-resourced departments that are being graded as excellent, and that it is because they are better resourced that they are likely to have achieved higher research rankings.

The Government justifies teaching assessment partly on the grounds that the ranking of departments will inform student choice. I very much doubt that it will do any such thing: the fault-lines in the present methodology run too deep.

The Government says it is looking for value for money. The expanded university system is looking for money for value. If Mr Major is sincere in wanting a quality higher education system embracing 'broad comparability' of standards, he must understand that he cannot have it on the cheap.

Professor Alderman is chairman of the Academic Council of the University of London.

(Photograph omitted)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Teeth should be brushed twice a day to prevent tooth decay
Bryan Cranston as Walter White, in the acclaimed series 'Breaking Bad'
footballChelsea 6 Maribor 0: Blues warm up for Premier League showdown with stroll in Champions League - but Mourinho is short of strikers
Those who were encouraged to walk in a happy manner remembered less negative words
Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones
Life and Style

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

There have been various incidents of social media users inadvertently flouting the law

Life and Style
Stack ‘em high?: quantity doesn’t always trump quality, as Friends of the Earth can testify
techThe proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
footballCSKA Moscow 2 Manchester City 2: Premier League champions let two goal lead slip in Russia
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Cover Supervisor for school in Leeds

£50 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Randstad Education are looking fo...

BTEC / A Level Business StudiesTeacher (Full time)

£100 - £160 per day + Mileage and Expenses: Randstad Education Leeds: BTEC and...

Maths Intervention / Learning Mentor

£60 - £80 per day + Mileage and Expenses: Randstad Education Leeds: We are loo...

KS2 Teacher

£100 - £150 per day + Flexible with benefits: Randstad Education Group: Key St...

Day In a Page

Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London