Ofsted style is set for the dustbin

Quality watchdogs are expecting to win support for a new quality assurance system that avoids Ofsted-style inspections.

They say higher education leaders are showing signs of backing plans that would mean the Quality Assurance Agency would not need to set up a "wholly external" team for reviewing subjects and courses.

But vice-chancellors have warned the QAA not to "jump the gun" by drawing premature conclusions about the future of external examining.

A group of university quality directors and deputy vice-chancellors who have been meeting since before Christmas to consider the issue have yet to issue a verdict on proposals for a new system of checking quality and standards outlined in a QAA consultation paper.

A response paper from the group, which is made up mostly of Russell and 94 group university members, is expected soon.

Sir Stewart Sutherland, vice-chancellor of Edinburgh University, who is convening the group, said vice-chancellors were likely to want a "robust external examiner system which avoids being too intrusive".

But the QAA should not make plans until it has seen responses to consultation, which must be submitted by May 22.

The consultation paper proposes that newly registered external examiners should have a dual reporting responsibility. This would involve checking standards and awards against new subject benchmarks, and evaluating the achievement of stated course objectives.

But an alternative approach also outlined in the paper appears to be proving popular, according to Peter Milton, the QAA's director of programme reviews.

This would involve the agency appointing "academic reviewers" to look at specified aspects of quality at subject level.

The reviewers would work closely with the registered external examiners as well as with institutional review teams.

The QAA's consultation paper says the original model would be "the most effective and economical way to meet multiple objectives" in quality assurance, but acknowledges that "it is a major development from current practice".

Dr Milton said the alternative approach might also help avoid potential conflicts of interest in the role of external examiners.

The consultation paper points out that some institutions use their external examiners in what amounts to a consultancy capacity, and "it would be problematic if a registered external examiner were advising an institution on processes designed to achieve programme outcomes while at the same time advising the agency on whether the outcomes had been achieved".

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