Peer welcomes Browne lead but demands watchdog be let off leash

QAA reform needed to ensure that fees and quality rise in step, Lord Willis tells Rebecca Attwood

The Quality Assurance Agency cannot be left "in the hands of universities" if Parliament votes through higher fees because students are already being "short-changed", according to the politician who led a cross-party inquiry into academic standards.

In an interview with Times Higher Education, Lord Willis of Knaresborough said that with the debate about the level of tuition fees taking centre stage, quality needed to return to the spotlight.

"What continues to worry me about the QAA is that it is still in the hands of the universities," said the former Liberal Democrat MP for Harrogate and Knaresborough, who was made a life peer in June.

"You cannot simply say that you are going to switch the cost of funding teaching to students as consumers and then say that the judge of whether that is a good or bad product lies with the producers."

An independent watchdog funded through an element of the student fee rather than by the universities themselves was "crucial", he said.

"Students, even in our most prestigious universities, are being short-changed over teaching standards, feedback and quality of staff," he said, with no system in place to hold institutions to account.

"We need to get the spotlight back on to quality because if students are going to be asked to make a very significant investment in education over their working lives, it had better be good - otherwise it is a deceit."

Aaron Porter, president of the National Union of Students, recently vowed to bring about a "consumer revolution" in higher education if higher fees were introduced.

He argued that the idea of a key part of the sector's "accountability machinery" being sector-owned had "had its day".

Lord Willis said he was "delighted" that the NUS had "at last moved on to this agenda", but criticised Mr Porter's "rhetoric of punishment and retribution".

Before his peership, Lord Willis was chair of the now defunct Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee. In August 2009, its report on standards in the academy, Students and Universities, accused the QAA of focusing too heavily on checking processes rather than examining standards.

The peer welcomed the watchdog's plans to beef up its oversight by introducing a new process of institutional audit that would see universities formally judged on whether they met nationally agreed "threshold standards".

"I certainly feel that is on the right lines - but until the QAA is an independent autonomous organisation that puts the real stamp of quality on our higher education system...our students will miss out."

He also supported coalition plans to require universities to publish better information about courses for applicants, something his committee had called for. However, he did not like the idea of the quality of information being monitored by the universities.

Lord Willis said he was pleased that while Students and Universities had been "condemned by vice-chancellors, the government and the QAA" at the time, many of its recommendations were now "forming the bedrock of the new relationship between the universities, students and the government".

He said he was "very supportive" of the Browne Review's plan to put students "in the driving seat".

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