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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
footballHe started just four months ago
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
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

Recruitment Genius: MIS Officer - Further Education Sector

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Operating throughout London and...

The Jenrick Group: Maintenance Planner

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Maintenance...

The Jenrick Group: Project Manager

£35000 per annum + Pension+Bupa: The Jenrick Group: We are recruiting for an e...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £35K - £45K: SThree: SThree Group have been we...

Day In a Page

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
Sports Quiz of the Year

Sports Quiz of the Year

So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect