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V-cs favour HEQC

Vice chancellors want a new quality regime based on the "success" of the Higher Education Quality Council rather than the "mess" presided over by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

Enquiries by The THES this week uncovered strong opposition among council members of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals to the creation of a quality agency and system dominated by the funding council. Instead there is solid support for quality audit and the style of the HEQC and widespread criticism of the culture of the funding council and its quality assessment methodology.

Vice chancellors preparing to debate the future of quality assurance at their council meeting next Friday are in favour of replacing the present arrangements with a single agency and more streamlined system, with emphasis on institutions' own quality checks.

Leading vice chancellors condemn the current dual system as involving unnecessary duplication and a drain on resources, and regard it as the product of ministers' inability to trust universities to safeguard quality themselves.

The strength of feeling against a funding council-controlled system is likely to have an impact on imminent talks between Kenneth Edwards, CVCP chairman, and Graeme Davies, funding council chief executive, over future arrangements for monitoring and protecting quality.

Dr Edwards denied rumours that a deal had been struck with the funding council to ensure its future involvement. But a new single agency would need to integrate the processes of both audit and assessment, he said.

"There is no question it is the responsibility of institutions to regulate quality, but we have to acknowledge the responsibilities of the funding council," he said.

Other council members were less supportive of the funding council's role. David Melville, vice chancellor of Middlesex University, said the work of the HEQC carried great confidence, while the funding council was getting itself into a "greater and greater mess".

"I think the Government is beginning to realise the activities of the funding council in this area have done us no favours."

He added: "The central question is what is the purpose of quality assurance. The Government needs to be assured of the quality of what we are doing, and we have seen the quality audit approach is the best way to do that."

Clive Booth, vice chancellor of Oxford Brookes University, said the present system was too bureaucratic, and needed to be replaced with one involving less duplication and intrusion.

"At the moment we have a far too intrusive machine that is interferring in a way that is not necessary. The Government should have more confidence in the ability of institutions to put their own house in order," he said.

But Sir Colin Campbell, vice chancellor of Nottingham University and a member of the HEFCE, said the university sector should accept quality assessment is here to stay. "I can see the advantages in having a new, hybrid system, involving representatives of the universities, the public, and the funding council. What I recommend most of all is an early end to the confusion of two bodies sniping at each other and irritating everyone in the system," he said.

What structure would you like to see for quality assurance in higher education? The THES will publish readers' views next week: please email them to theschat@timsup2.demon.co.uk or fax 0171 782 3300 by Monday January 16.

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