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Choose to do-it-ourselves

John Stoddart argues that self-regulation is the only route to high standards

The creation of a single higher education sector in 1992 gave an opportunity to review radically the framework for quality assurance in universities and colleges and to address some issues of accountability. Unfortunately this opportunity was not taken. At the time there was too much inherited baggage -- what to do with the Council for National Academic Awards, Her Majesty's Inspectorate and the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals's academic audit unit -- as well as considerable ignorance and distrust across the binary line. The quality arrangements put in place for the enlarged sector were, therefore, not surprisingly, inherited rather than thought through afresh. Quality audit and enhancement evolved from the past practices of the academic audit unit and CNAA, while the HMI's quality assessment functions were adopted by the new funding councils and extended to the old university sector.

These arrangements have proved far from satisfactory. Their purpose, their effectiveness, the extent of duplication and their combined cost are all questioned. The CVCP has pressed for a single agency to be responsible for quality matters and the Secretary of State for Education, Gillian Shephard has indicated her willingness to review arrangements. The present rounds of audit and assessment both come to an end in the autumn of 1996.

We therefore have a second chance to put in place external quality arrangements which are appropriate to the needs of the enlarged sector. Such arrangements must balance accountability to students, employers and Government on the one hand, and institutional self-improvement, enhancement and innovation on the other. Mrs Shephard is absolutely right to say that unless higher education is able to demonstrate visibly that it continues to offer high quality teaching and research, it will lose business overseas and public support at home. This challenge is not limited to Britain -- similar arguments are expressed about quality and standards elsewhere in Europe and in North America.

Everywhere higher education has to demonstrate that the large amounts of money and time which it consumes are justified by the general experience and specific knowledge and skills which it confers. The fundamental purpose of any quality system is to provide this reassurance -- to be able to guarantee the standards of awards and to ensure that the quality of teaching and learning is such that students have the best opportunity of reaching those standards. This must be up to the institutions.

We therefore have to have a national system which covers both quality and standards. It must be one capable of embracing both institutional responsibilities for the quality of teaching and learning, and the ways in which those responsibilities are discharged through individual programmes and awards. It must be cost-effective and in particular make the best possible use of the sector's key resource -- experienced academic staff. Finally, value for money, a responsibility of the sector as well as of the funding councils -- must also be assured.

A supportive, collective self-regulatory system is not only very desirable but is the only way of ensuring a strong and healthy higher education system. The only guarantor of high quality and standards of teaching and learning is the academic community itself. I believe that it is possible to build on the present audit methodology based on the collegiality and professionalism of the academic community and to develop a system which would be sufficiently rigorous and public to discharge our individual and collective responsibilities for standards and quality and which would provide the information required for both external and internal purposes.

While the focus would be on the institutions' responsibilities, the process would also examine reviews of individual programmes and awards in order to establish that the institution was achieving its educational mission, to confirm that its awards were at an appropriate level, and to identify good practice. The outcomes could be published reports setting out clearly, critically and in detail for a variety of audiences, the strengths and weaknesses of the institution and its academic provision as perceived by the evaluators, who would include people with appropriate experience and expertise from outside higher education.

There are various ways in which the necessary public accountability could be secured. A joint committee of interested parties might be established to oversee the development and implementation of the new process. This would leave the various separate agencies -- the funding councils, the quality council, individual professional bodies -- free to take whatever action they considered fit on the basis of the reports which emerged. The advantages of a single agency would not detract from the responsibilities of the separate agencies to their various constituencies.

The two alternatives to a strong self-regulatory system are either to emphasise the responsibility and accountability of the individual university or to accept some form of imposed regulatory framework.

The first is one in which the whole weight of quality assurance rests on individual institutions and their internal processes. There is already accountability to a governing council or a wider representative court, but the accountability tends to be weak and it is difficult to see how the arrangements could be strengthened sufficiently to meet present requirements.

On the other hand the danger of an imposed regulatory framework is very real -- a framework in which the major weight would rest on the external validation or approval of subjects or programmes in individual institutions. While it would be possible to dovetail external processes closely with an institution's own activities, the final responsibility lies outside the institution with the funding council or possibly new independent agency of the kind proposed by the Labour Party before the last General Election.

A model of this kind is not unfamiliar from past experience with CNAA and HMI, nor indeed from current experience with some professional bodies. The question now is whether we revert to a system of this kind, resourced by the sector but heavily influenced by the funding councils or an independent agency, or whether we make a genuine attempt at a self-regulatory system which would be sufficiently rigorous and public to be taken seriously by government and the wider community.

Self-regulation is not a soft option, it means taking seriously the messages about ourselves emerging from assessment, audit and professional accreditation, many of which are not very flattering. It means being prepared to review and if necessary radically change our approaches to quality. It means moving from self-justifying rhetoric to reflection on hard evidence. Above all, it means being much more open about what we are trying to do, where we are succeeding and where we are not. Done properly, self-regulation is the only secure route to high quality and standards because it builds on and brings out our professionalism.

If we cannot, both as individual institutions and collectively, find ways of demonstrating the value of our services to students, to employers, to society -- then it is likely that others will seek to impose a framework on us which will almost certainly intrude on our autonomy and our professional standing. This is already starting to happen in certain areas. The very welcome changes that have taken place in higher education in recent years have raised real questions outside the system which have to be addressed if we are to sustain our reputation and persuade students, employers and government to continue to invest in us. I believe that the choice is ours.

John Stoddart is chairman of the Higher Education Quality Council.

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