Terence Kealey: We need to set up a new standards agency

Thursday 09 January 2014 02:17
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Who said "... our power comes from influence and fear". Was it Robert Mugabe, Tony Soprano, Osama Bin Laden, or the QAA's boss? The answer of course is Peter Williams, the chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency.

Williams talks like a thug because he occupies a space that is ambiguous. The QAA website says that it safeguards quality and standards in higher education. But on 7 May 2009 Colin Riordan, who chairs the appropriate committee of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, wrote in Times Higher Education "the sector accepts that quality is subject to a national regulatory framework operated by the QAA, but rightly insists that standards are an essential element of institutional autonomy, guaranteed by the institutions themselves... standards are properly the preserve of autonomous higher education institutions."

So, the QAA claims it safeguards standards in higher education, but Hefce confirms that it doesn't. Confused? Of course you are. "Quality" in QAA-speak means bureaucratic process. "Standards" means outcome, or how the students perform. "Standards refer to the level of achievement in students' degrees," says Riordan.

Students, parents and employers are interested only in standards. They want to know how good the teaching is at one university compared to another, and to know how a 2.1 from University A compares to a 2.2 from University B. But they are no more interested in the bureaucracy behind those outcomes than they are in Waitrose's bureaucracy or Sainsbury's.

But the universities are determined not to disclose information on standards because, like MPs and their expenses, they don't want the potential embarrassment. So they won't do it.

Nor need they. The QAA has been as captured by the sector it supposedly regulates as were the financial regulatory bodies by the banks they supposedly regulated. Indeed, half the directors of the QAA are university professors. The QAA says that bureaucracy and outcome are positively linked – good bureaucracy leads to good outcome. That is an inversion of reality. Bureaucracy and outcome are, actually, negatively linked: resources are limited, so people have to choose one over the other. There was nothing wrong, as Ofsted showed, with Haringey's bureaucracy, but because its social workers prioritised process they failed on outcome.

Equally, the QAA's emphasis on process damages standards. And the universities collude with this because it is easier to run committees than to teach or examine properly.

The QAA's ability to mislead is infinite. It claims to engage in peer review. Actually, the QAA are not our peers. So, for example, the five QAA auditors who prey on your university may not include a single person who has a PhD or senior management experience. These people are most certainly not our peers!

The QAA has just appointed its third chief executive since it was founded, and not one of those CEOs has held a PhD. No one can be judged on whether or not they have a particular degree (Einstein had no PhD) but when successive holders of a post don't have a PhD, then that is not an academic post. Its postholders can't describe themselves as academics' peers, and the QAA board can be criticised for not making appropriate appointments.

We live in a corporate miasma where universities collude with Hefce and QAA to pretend they are being regulated properly. This must stop. The QAA should be incorporated into Hefce and a new Standards Assurance Agency should be set up. Like the judges, it should be independent of the Government –and the universities – and it should monitor standards.

The writer is vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham

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