Flaws found in assessment of universities: Confidential document calls for change

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PROPOSALS to scrap a controversial new system of inspecting university departments just nine months after it was introduced are made in a confidential document obtained by the Independent.

The report says the system of judging departments as excellent, satisfactory or unsatisfactory should be abandoned. Instead it proposes a pass/fail approach. There should be a profile of each department, listing its strengths and weaknesses, and a single category showing that it is above the threshold of 'sound provision'.

No longer should there be two reports, one secret which goes to the university vice-chancellor, and another sent to the university. There should be one report and it should be public. Students should be asked for their views about their course.

The report, by Dr Ron Barnett of London University's Institute of Education, says: 'The current triple set of categories of judgement, especially the rating of excellence, is producing major policy and operational problems.' It says there is a problem in defining excellence, and ensuring equivalence across institutions and disciplines.

Academics have complained that assessors, instead of evaluating teaching quality, have criticised the curriculum. In other instances, honest self-criticism by dons has been used to justify assertions of weakness.

All departments should be visited before a report is made, the report says. At present, a university can be given the accolade 'excellent' without being visited if it can substantiate the claim on paper. The budget would have to double, from pounds 5m to pounds 10m a year.

The report will be discussed by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which commissioned it, on 30 March.

It will disappoint academics because it fails to address the main problem, which is how to streamline the inspection of universities.

The funding councils inspect individual subjects such as law or history. But separately the Higher Education Quality Council looks at whole universities, to see if they have the mechanisms in place to ensure quality. The Barnett report says this issue was outside its terms of reference.

If the funding council accepts the report, any changes will have to be agreed with the Government. Ministers insisted at the beginning that the word 'excellent' should be used in the quality assessment.