Every year, our universities cost taxpayers £5 billion, and students contribute a further £390 million through fees. It’s important that we have a clear understanding of the quality of education that this investment is providing. However, the proposed reduction of the current inspection system could make it harder to attain this level of clarity.
As the education and skills secretary, Estelle Morris, prepares for her first major higher education speech at Universities UK, it’s essential that she addresses worries about the government’s accountability policies. John Randall’s resignation as chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency has only added fuel to these concerns.
Since 1992, universities have undergone institutional audits, with individual subject departments receiving separate evaluations, overseen by the QAA since 1997. Additionally, potential students can access detailed information about departments on the QAA website, with scores between one and four awarded by academics and other professionals against six criteria that includes teaching, resources, and student guidance. Unfortunately, the proposed Quality Assurance in Higher Education consultation paper, jointly issued by the Higher Education Funding Council, QAA, Universities UK, and the Standing Conference of Principals, could hand more power to producers.
Universities are currently evaluated based on what they offer their students, and external inspectors should be able to access internal reviews. However, the consultation suggestions that detailed reviews should be limited to 10% of a university’s students has raised significant concerns for some. While it makes sense to use a lighter touch for departments with a good rating, it’s questionable whether they should not face inspections for over a decade.
While the current inspection process focuses too much on the "tick box approach," too much reliance on "self-evaluation" creates concerns that inspectors will only concentrate on the purported robustness of internal assessments. The government needs to reconsider its policies and find a balanced solution that ensures every university undergoes inspection every five years, with additional scrutiny for a third of the departments.
Awarding "marks" to departments has been criticized for promoting league tables, but without some method of comparison, it’s challenging to evaluate universities’ strengths. It may be worthwhile introducing separate university-wide scales for teaching quality, research, and facilities, accounting for universities’ variables teaching methods. Universities must be judged based on the claims they make for their techniques.
Morris needs to indicate that she is receptive to changing current consultation proposals. It’s essential to give all stakeholders, including student unions, universities, and the general public, adequate opportunities to provide feedback.
In light of recent announcements regarding the addition of league tables for schools, it is now imperative to establish accurate and easily understandable performance tables for every university. This can be achieved through the publication of accessible and prominent plain English reports on their respective websites. By adopting this strategy, we can uphold the integrity of university inspections and guarantee that students and taxpayers, who are the primary clientele, are not deprived of their rightful entitlements. Furthermore, once this system is implemented, it is crucial that the government publish its findings to the general public in a manner similar to school inspections and performance tables.