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The Scottish road to quality

Gordon Kirk wants a single agency to audit and assess higher education in Scotland

Since the legislation of 1992 transformed higher education in Scotland, institutions have been subjected to two additional forms of external scrutiny: quality audit and quality assessment. The first of these has been concerned with an institution's systems and procedures for maintaining quality; quality assessment involves an external evaluation of the actual quality of education that is provided. The 1992 legislation ascribed the first of these functions to the Higher Education Quality Council and the second to the funding councils themselves, which they undertake through quality assessment committees.

It is now widely accepted that quality audit and quality assessment should be seen as a single function performed by a single agency. The experience of the dual arrangements has demonstrated that these are duplicative, excessively time-consuming and wasteful of scarce resources. That degree of common ground having been achieved, the debate has switched to the important question of which agency should carry responsibility for the combined function. The Higher Education Quality Council and the funding council for England have both claimed that they have the necessary credibility.

For their part, the institutions, mainly through the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, have argued for an approach that recognises the proper responsibility that institutions themselves carry for the quality of their work and the standard of their awards. It appears that, in England at any rate, ministers have been persuaded to follow the committee's approach.

The position in Scotland is more complex. There are those who prefer to see the unitary function performed in Scotland by the same body as emerges to perform that function in England, and possibly Wales. The advocates of that view - and they include the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals, which speaks for all higher education institutions in Scotland - maintain that there should be a single agency across the United Kingdom. Scotland, it is felt, is too small to maintain a vigorous culture of peer review across the whole spectrum of academic activities. Consequently, the argument runs, there is a danger of academic parochialism and there is at least the possibility of a weakening in the independence with which academic work in an institution is scrutinised.

A second view has been advocated by the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council, which has maintained that the quality audit function can readily be incorporated into the existing quality assessment arrangements to form an integrated service to Scottish institutions. While the response to the council's quality assessment procedures varies, there is a consensus that these are robust (if anything, according to some commentators and institutions, too robust). It is acknowledged that there are defects in the arrangements but these are thought to be remediable and the council is already committed to consultation with institutions about how the system can be refined.

It is certainly the view of the funding council that the quality audit function could be grafted on easily and naturally to the revised assessment function in ways that institutions might find acceptable. It will be interesting to see how the review proceeds, with apparently one half of the members committed to the council's approach of a single Scottish quality audit and assessment body, while the other half, following the Scottish principals, are committed to a UK body. The prospects of an agreed solution seem, at this stage, remote.

The argument for giving Scotland its own quality audit and assessment body is that Scotland has a distinctive system of higher education. The Scottish Further and Higher Education Act of 1992 can be interpreted as a declaration of Scottish educational independence: it acknowledged that the universities of Scotland, like other higher education institutions, were integral features of Scottish education as a whole and ought properly, in a devolved context, to fall under the political control of the Secretary of State for Scotland and to be managed by people living and working in Scotland. The creation of a single agency for quality audit and assessment in Scotland would serve to reinforce the creation of a fully Scottish system of higher education.

Those who favour a Scottish body see features of our present arrangements which have the effect of undermining the integrity of Scottish higher education. One example is the research assessment exercise, which apparently is controlled by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, although it works in close collaboration with the other funding bodies. A second is the creation of a single UK body for pay bargaining: the Universities and Colleges Employment Association. A third is the continuation of the influential Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals.

As has been noted, there is an obvious objection to the establishment of a purely Scottish body: it might prove parochial and, because of the smallness of the academic community, there may be a lack of candour in the assessments that are made of institutions, and genuine independence of judgment might be threatened. The answer to these fears, surely, is to have a system that is controlled and managed by Scottish interests but one which draws extensively on expertise furth of Scotland.

It ought to be possible for any panel of auditors to consist of members from institutions in England and Wales, from the Continent and, indeed, farther afield. In other words, the same arrangements could be made for quality audit and assessment as currently take place with regard to external examining across the UK. Clearly, the standards to be applied would continue to be international standards but control of the system would reside where it ought to reside - in Scotland.

If it is granted that there should be a single agency for quality audit and assessment in Scotland, should that body be the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council? There are two issues here. While the council carries responsibility for quality assessment it has no statutory obligation to conduct assessment: it has to ensure that quality assessment is undertaken. It is certainly conceivable that quality assessment could be subcontracted to another independent agency and for that agency to perform the dual function of quality audit and assessment for Scotland.

There is a second consideration. However well or badly the SHEFC has undertaken its quality assessment function, and however well it might perform the combined quality audit and assessment function, there is a difficulty about placing responsibility for such key functions in a body that also controls funding.

If that is thought to be a serious issue, the answer would be to allow both functions to be performed independently. The funding council could, if it wished, continue to reward high achievement by allocating additional funds, or to penalise low achievement by threatening the withdrawal of funds, and, in doing so, it would be seen to be acting impartially in the light of judgments made by a totally independent and authoritative body.

If, on the other hand, it is maintained that there is no need to build in such degrees of protection by the creation of two separate bodies then, in my view, the answer for Scotland is clear: responsibility for the revised systems of quality audit and quality assessment should be placed with the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council.

Professor Gordon Kirk is principal of Moray House Institute of Education.

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