If not quality assurance, then what?

The UK Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) exemplifies the worst type of contemporary governance: ineffective, inefficient and actually counterproductive.

Bruce Charlton

Topics Politics

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Teaching in UK universities recently hit the headlines with the resignation of John Randall as chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA).

This followed a successful campaign by the main research universities, leading to a reduction in QAA auditing. Broadsheet newspaper coverage was generally sympathetic to the QAA officials and hostile to the academics, whose modest victory was interpreted by the Daily Telegraph correspondent as a return to the ‘dark ages’ (1).

The QAA is part of the UK government’s bureaucracy for controlling education, but prefers to portray itself as a consumer watchdog that provides comparative information on the quality of university teaching. However, the QAA is not an inspectorate, nor does it provide comparative information. Inspection would involve sampling actual teaching by unannounced visits, and comparative information would rank universities against universal criteria. QAA officials merely observe a handful of pre-prepared ‘demonstration’ classes, and rate each university department against its own internally generated targets.

What the QAA mainly does is to generate and evaluate paperwork – vast quantities of it. The visitation to my own medium-sized university department (approximately 15 academic staff) generated considerably more than 10,000 A4 sheets housed in dozens of box-files that filled a room. The inspection lasted four days. The logistics of preparation took many months, including secondment of academic staff, dozens of hours of meetings, ‘away days’ and employment of extra secretarial help.

Multiply this by dozens of departments in more than 100 universities, and the exercise costs approximately £100million per year. Enough money for 20,000 impoverished students to be awarded bursaries of £5000 each.

But if the QAA is not about measuring teaching quality, what is it about? The answer is simple: the QAA is about control – but indirect control through audit, rather than direct control through orders. The QAA is an embodiment of quality assurance (QA) management, which is a technical term for auditing systems and processes.

In other words, QA defines ‘quality’ in terms of a standard type of system for organising teaching, and a ‘quality assured’ product is defined as one produced by this kind of fully auditable system. So the teaching in a quality assured system is high quality by definition, not because of what happens in the classroom. And in order to be auditable, the system must be comprehensively documented and absolutely consistent on cross-checking (hence all the dead trees).

The QA approach has been a godsend to politicians and managers, since it has proved impossible to agree upon valid and reliable definitions of teaching ‘quality’ or how to measure it. With QA there is no attempt to measure real-life educational excellence. Instead, ‘high quality’ teaching is defined as an explicit system characterised by mission statements, aims and objectives, information flowcharts, monitoring, feedback loops, and formal procedures for all imaginable contingencies.

Debate is shifted away from trying to measure teaching outcomes (for example, ‘was this lecture well taught?’), towards measuring conformity to a standard system of practice (such as, ‘was this lecture fully documented and consistent with the mission statement?’).

The QAA exemplifies the worst type of contemporary governance: ineffective, inefficient and – by shifting resources away from teaching and towards documentation – actually counterproductive. Unfortunately, the QAA approach is altogether typical of recent UK public policy, which seems to be modelled on Eastern Bloc economics. Detailed centralised supervision and inspection is a recipe for decline which official statistics merely camouflage. Recent managerial innovations, such as information technology and quality assurance auditing, have simply extended the damage even further into institutional practices.

Future reforms should eschew detailed control, and concentrate on adjusting incentives. It would make sense to mobilise the group with a natural interest in teaching excellence – namely university students (and their parents). Instead of centrally imposed limits on student recruitment and fixed fees, there needs to be a market that rewards good teaching with higher income from more students, higher fees, or both.

‘Excellence’ in teaching should be ‘measured’ by students themselves, whose incentive is that their judgments will have direct personal consequences. After all, in the USA the highest fees are attracted not only by large research universities (eg, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford) but also by small ‘liberal arts colleges’ which offer more individual attention and higher quality teaching (Bennington, Oberlin, Amherst, and so on).

The problem lies at the bottom end of the higher education market. It is envisaged that half of the UK population will eventually be educated at tertiary level. However, good teaching – whether at schools, colleges or universities – is seldom both cheap and abundant, because it requires motivated and gifted staff teaching small classes.

The best that can realistically be expected from a mass higher education system is the enforcement of a reasonable minimum standard, and the mechanism of enforcement must itself be cheap and robust. This could be achieved by a straightforwardly inspectorial approach, based upon random surprise visitations. Inspectors would not aim to reward excellence or to measure quality, merely to identify incompetence or fraud.

Students who are too hard-up to support the immediate costs of tertiary education will need to be awarded bursaries in order to help pay their fees and living expenses. In fact, a preliminary scheme of financial assistance has just been announced as an emergency response to the failure to maintain growth in student recruitment. It is vital that these students are free to spend their bursaries at whatever institution they wish to attend. Universities and colleges will need to compete for their custom, by offering different combinations of academic status, curriculum, social cachet, facilities, teaching, and so on. What should result is a wide variety of institutions to cater for most needs – including some colleges that offer a modestly priced, no frills, but rigorous educational programme.

Such a market-led approach to regulating higher education faces formidable political barriers. But these must be surmounted if a massively expanded UK education system is to achieve truly high quality in teaching.

Bruce Charlton is reader in evolutionary psychiatry at Newcastle University, and a visiting professor in public health policy and health services research at the University of East London. In February 2000 he was the first academic publicly to boycott a QAA visitation.

Read on:

Why the QAA should RIP, by Frank Furedi and John Randall

spiked-issues: Education

(1) University standards chief quits, Daily Telegraph, 22 August 2001

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Topics Politics


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