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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
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

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

Reach Volunteering: Would you like to volunteer your expertise as Chair of Governors for Livability?

Voluntary and unpaid, reasonable expenses are reimbursable: Reach Volunteering...

Ashdown Group: Payroll Administrator - Buckinghamshire - £25,000

£20000 - £25000 per annum + substantial benefits: Ashdown Group: Finance Admin...

Ashdown Group: Linux Systems Administrator - Windows, Linux - Central London

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Linux Systems Administrat...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine