Drive for state control ‘punishes’ universities

Author: By Richard Garner, Education Editor

The accusation comes from Peter Williams, the outgoing head of the Quality Assurance Agency (the higher education standards watchdog), on the day the Government launches its blueprint for the future of universities over the next 15 years.

Peter Mandelson, the Business Secretary, will outline plans for a “students’ charter”, which will give potential undergraduates a guarantee of the number of “contact” hours they can expect with their lecturers, plus top-quality teaching standards. An improved standard of learning, Lord Mandelson argues, is essential if university fees are to rise from their present level of £3,225 a year. A Government inquiry into fees will be launched later this month.

Mr Williams’ comments echo fears privately held by vice-chancellors that a strait-jacket, similar to that imposed on schools through targets and the national curriculum, will be introduced for universities. A report by the Commons select committee covering universities has previously accused vice-chancellors of a “defensive complacency” over higher education standards.

MPs have called for the QAA to be given more teeth to strip universities of their powers to award degrees if they fail to maintain standards.

Lord Mandelson has indicated he believes the select committee went too far in its criticism of universities. However, he will insist on measures to better the quality of learning and widen participation from disadvantaged areas when he presents his framework tomorrow.

Mr Williams, in his speech at London University’s Institute of Education, will say: “I’m sorry to say that the select committee is not a good advertisement for British higher education.

“All but two of its 13 members hold degrees from UK universities and yet their powers of analysis and reasoning are poor and their understanding of a complex structure is inadequate.” He will add their vision of a standards watchdog “goes no further than a crude disciplinary police force, the academic equivalent of something like Zomo ? the Polish paramilitary police of Communist times”.

“In their eyes, higher education must always be presumed guilty until proven innocent and QAA’s future should be as the agents that root out and extirpate the deviant, like some latter-day Spanish inquisition,” he will add. “This is not about improvement so much as punishment.”

Vice-chancellors agree the MPs’ proposals are an attempt to establish a tough schools-style inspection regime on universities, setting out a core curriculum for them to follow and safeguards to ensure parity of standards when awarding degrees. They argue they would no longer be free-standing institutions and would face far more state control over their affairs.

Mr Williams argues he has “no doubts” a new standards watchdog along the lines proposed by MPs “would be seriously damaging to both quality and standards”.

“A more effective means of stifling creativity and innovation, of encouraging ‘teaching to the test’, and of turning out standard issue graduates is hard to imagine.”

MPs on the select committee, he says, “take it as their starting point the premise that higher education institutions and most who work in and around them are devious, untrustworthy and unreliable, taking public funds and offering a poor deal in return”.

“It sees the QAA as a submissive lapdog, useless because it is unable to destroy universities or their courses, unwilling to act as a kind of SAS against higher education or to trample on the principle of institutional autonomy.”

The select committee argues current checks on degree standards are “out of date, inconsistent and should be replaced”. “We are extremely concerned that inconsistency is rife and there is a reluctance to address the issue,” said Philip Willis, chairman of the select committee which produced the report.

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