Grasping the nettle

Sir Ron Dearing's plans for checking up on standards are sending shivers around the universities. Are they right to be alarmed? Lucy Hodges investigates
One little-noticed chapter of the Dearing Report on Higher Education which is causing alarm, is about standards and quality. Some experts argue that it is at least as far-reaching as the recommendations on funding. Anyone who reads it will see that Sir Ron Dearing certainly seized the nettle of standards.

Academics are worried that it gives many more powers to the central agency set up to keep watch on universities. They are also concerned that it recommends that monitoring be done by a strengthened cadre of external examiners, who will be properly trained and centrally registered.

To the critics, that sounds like the dreaded school inspectors who work for Ofsted, and who have been known to reduce experienced teachers to tears. They have visions of teams of academic police roaming the country marking down degree courses which are not up to scratch. In his report, Sir Ron Dearing said that the new Quality Assurance Agency would need to "conduct external scrutiny" if there were serious complaints, or if there were other evidence of serious failing. "Examples might include where the quality of support available to students is inadequate, or where an institution is offering substandard awards," he wrote.

With the following sentence, he sent shivers down universities' spines: "The funding bodies should be enabled to withdraw funding if the complaint is upheld and appropriate remedial action is not forthcoming."

Geoffrey Alderman, head of academic development and quality assurance at Middlesex University, calls the recommendations an "infringement of university autonomy". And, on the proposal for beefing up the external examiner system, he says: "This is a complete revolution in what the external examiner system is about. The external examiners will be the watchdogs of the Quality Assurance Agency. I imagine that, if an external examiner sends in a report slagging off a course at Neasden University, and the university fails to satisfy the agency that it has put things right, the agency will recommend that the funding council reduces the university's block grant by, say, 1 per cent."

Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Brunel University, is another who thinks that chapter 10 of the Dearing report is one of the most controversial. Likening the powers of a strengthened quality agency to the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority, he says: "The report is giving an external body powers over universities and putting at risk their cherished autonomy ... you could be imposing a uniformity which became a straitjacket ... you will end up with a lot of paperwork."

The new Quality Assurance Agency came into being earlier this year, under the previous government. The aim was to replace two bodies: the Higher Education Quality Council, set up by the vice-chancellors, which kept an eye on universities to ensure that they had quality mechanisms in place; and the higher education funding councils of England, Wales and Scotland, which assess the quality of teaching. Academics had objected to the burdens which all this auditing placed on them. The idea behind the new body was to streamline such quality control.

If the Dearing proposals are accepted, the new agency will be responsible for setting up and running a new single, national qualifications framework as well. That is a huge undertaking. It means working out how each academic programme relates to others in terms of levels of achievement - on a scale of one to eight, where a Higher National Certificate is one and a PhD is eight. The new framework will be based on credit points - meaning that students could progress from one level to another, or from one institution to another. As one insider put it: "That means the agency is effectively running higher education."

It will be a difficult task to define the different levels of achievement, because that will determine the level of a degree. At the moment there is no definition. The new agency, in concert with the universities and other interested parties, will have to work out, for example, what the level of a first-, second- and third-year undergraduate course should be across all subjects. That could mean the new agency organising the work of hundreds of groups of academics across the United Kingdom. "The agency is deciding how higher education is defined," according to the spokesperson.

Another big task set out in Dearing is for the agency to oversee a clutch of codes of practice for universities: on careers guidance, postgraduate courses and overseas franchising. There will also be an overarching code which governs quality and standards in universities.

Finally, the agency will have the major job of deciding what the external examiners do - the "academics of high standing and integrity" in Dearing's words. At present it is thought that there are 15,000-plus external examiners keeping tabs on the awarding of degrees in the United Kingdom, though no one really knows the number. It is thought to be unlikely that the new agency, with its lean staff of 90, could possibly wade through 15,000 reports a year.

That kind of detail shows that almost no attention was paid in the Dearing report to how these recommendations would be implemented. When the report was published, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals viewed the section on standards with surprising equanimity. (Some people even wondered whether they had read the report before commenting.) But individual vice-chancellors are not so sanguine, and there is expected to be lively discussion at their residential meeting in Strathclyde next month.

Professor Martin Harris, vice-chancellor of Manchester University and incoming CVCP chairman, says: "Whether these recommendations are accepted depends on many details which have yet to be worked out."

Professor Evelyn Ebsworth, vice-chancellor of Durham University, agrees. But he has many worries. One is the notion that you can relate degrees to sub-degree level qualifications, on the same scale. Another is the idea that spelling out threshold, or minimum, standards for degrees will not lead to a national curriculum for higher education.

"I don't think there has been a lot of questioning about the standard of work produced by graduates from my university," he says. "I shall be extremely disturbed if the standards of our teaching decline because we have to conform to formal structures that have been set up because of the weaknesses of other places."

Not all academics are worried about the proposals, however. Professor Lee Harvey at the Centre for Research into Quality, University of Central England, thinks that standards in universities need to be more transparent. And there is no reason why the agency's work should impinge on teaching or assessment. "I don't see this negatively. I see it as a positive move," he says.

Christopher Kenyon, chairman of the new agency, who runs a Manchester manufacturing company, says he's not surprised that universities are sensitive. "They're bound to be," he adds. "But I'm sorry the reaction is strong, and I don't go along with this idea that external examiners will be a police force. That's precisely what the Quality Assurance Agency must not become. This is an opportunity for universities to develop a sensible, self-regulatory system of quality assurance." The same point is made by John Randall, the agency's new chief executive, who previously worked for the Law Society. He does not think universities have anything to worry about.

"They're presented with new opportunities," he says. "It would be unfortunate if people saw this as a threat. It's an opportunity for universities to collaborate in setting standards."

Students have cause to give three cheers. Dearing recommended that the Quality Assurance Agency include a student on its board as soon as possible. It said: "It must ensure that the membership of its board represents the interests of students adequately and that it is not inward-looking".

What Dearing thinks about standards:

"Given the large increase in the number of students taking degrees over the last 20 years, and a marked rise in the proportion awarded first or upper second class honours, many think it is not plausible to say that standards have not declined."

"Expansion of student numbers has put the existing quality assurance arrangements under strain. The system of external examiners alone cannot guarantee comparability of standards across a diverse mass system of higher education. In some areas professional bodies are expressing concern about present arrangements. There have been a few highly publicised cases where concerns exist about the adequacy of arrangements to ensure that quality and standards are safeguarded where an institution franchises programmes to another, whether in this country or overseas. We are also concerned about the low level of confidence among some employers about standards of qualifications awarded."

"The Engineering Council has expressed acute concerns about standards in engineering which we agree need to be urgently addressed."

"In the absence of the infrastructure and arrangements of the kind we propose, pressures for increased and direct intervention from outside higher education will intensify."

How Dearing thinks standards can be improved

Beefed-up quality agency to check on standards

A single national qualifications framework

All universities to adopt code of practice on quality and standards by 2001/2002

Benchmark standards to be set by expert teams within qualifications framework

Strengthened pool of centrally registered external examiners