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Scourge of a higher authority

Ofsted may never darken their doorsteps, but universities have their own inspections burden

Until about 20 years ago an academic (a pompous term for a university teacher) was viewed as a protected species sitting in an ivory tower, shrouded in knowledge and beyond reproach. Academics could teach, for better or worse, and without much constraint on the content of their lectures or tutorials. Then accountability came in.

First it was learning objectives, then core content. Finally, following the Dearing report in 1997, the powers that be decided they wanted quality assurance. The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), contracted by the higher education funding councils, was established to review standards of higher education in the UK.

OK, it's not exactly Ofsted but every four years or so we have to undergo a QAA review, which involves gathering huge amounts of paperwork to be inspected by external assessors. These assessors also inspect some "live" activities, sitting in on lectures and tutorials and speaking with students. Of course, these are carefully chosen. The best lecturers are selected to perform in a newly refurbished lecture theatre, and the most positive, intelligent and clean-cut students are picked for private feedback.

But it's the paperwork that is a time-consuming nightmare. Needless to say, it requires extra administrative staff to guide academics into producing the right documentation, to keep the unemployment figures down and to create extra committee work under the guise of "doing" quality assurance.

But all this committee work and paper recycling takes up time that should be used for preparing teaching materials and perhaps improving quality of delivery.

As I sit writing two reports in as many weeks, I wonder who am I fooling: myself or the assessors of a third-year BSc degree programme, for which I am co-ordinator? I slip quietly into the educational jargon: course content, course objectives, transferable skills, monitoring, mentoring, feedback, formative and summative assessments, selection criteria, organisational skills, personal and professional development, external examiners' reports...

I've reached page 15 of the first report and already it is day seven. Can I honestly put my hand on my heart and say, yes, we deliver in all these aspects, on top of doing what we are employed to do: teach, enthuse, inspire and encourage critical skills and analysis? And am I going to say in my report that the BSc programme does not offer any transferable skills, that I don't monitor course content or quality and that I ignore any student feedback that may be unfavourable? I can cover any flaw with jargon. The report is shaping up nicely.

Day 10. I am now on to report number two. This is to do with programme specification. The problem is that I've come to a stumbling block regarding "improvements to the course and teaching methods". Do I suggest that all weak teachers (sorry academics) are sacked or sent on a teaching training course, or that there could be many improvements, but I can't be bothered to instigate them, or that we all keep trying to improve our teaching standards, or that the course is so perfect nothing needs to be done?

The next question must be "what are the weaknesses of the course?" I shall have to think of a tiny and insignificant weakness just to appear plausible, critical, innovative and forward-thinking. I need some more educational jargon. The problem is that no one ever taught me any transferable skills with regard to quality assurance.

Day 12. Now they want to know what the outcomes of the course are. Well, education, education, education and (hopefully) letters after the students'

names. I suspect this won't do. Perhaps we need to employ someone to follow up the careers of our graduates after they have donned mortar boards in the presence of proud parents with second mortgages.

Day 13. Doing web surfing on QAA, I gather that the categories for "outcomes" should include key skills (communication, numeracy, use of IT and learning how to learn), cognitive skills (such as understanding methodologies or critical analysis) and subjective specific skills (such as laboratory skills). So we don't teach word processing or the use of Excel sheets, nor do we test students on their mathematical tables. If they don't know how to learn by their third year in university they could be in trouble.

We do try to teach critical skills, and it is obvious that they have to learn laboratory skills because each student has to do a final year research project. And for some reason this report has to "detail the skills and other transferable intellectual abilities fostered by the programme" for (unidentified) employers.

Day 14. With the correct words, I write that our programme identifies and executes all of these objectives and that our students graduate with a wealth of transferable intellectual abilities - whatever that means. It's not that I mind inspection, scrutiny or criticism that we may not be achieving our aims, but save our trees, our time and empty jargon.

It has been suggested that schools receive only a few days' notice before the Ofsted inspectors arrives. I want my QAA inspector to pop in for a cup of tea and a chat - as long as he gives me enough notice to put the kettle on and retrieve the prospectus, handbook, course notes, objectives and other internal paraphernalia from my filing cabinet. They tell the story, not the jargon required for these formal reports.

The writer, who wants to remain anonymous, is a reader in a medical school in the south of England

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