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Students deserve a degree of quality

Universities should be fully funded but in return they must be held fully accountable, says Douglas Osler

It is common practice for governments to set targets for bodies receiving public money and then to have independent evaluation of their performance.

That happens in the NHS, housing, courts administration, police, fire and many other services. The most familiar is quality assurance in schools and further education by means of an inspectorate. It is hard to argue with the notion that bodies supported by taxpayers should demonstrate value for money and be held accountable for what they do with it. In business, the same concept of monitoring performance applies when a successful business persuades its customers to come back again, or it fails.

So why have universities been allowed to escape meaningful external scrutiny, particularly at a time when they want more public cash as well as money from their consumers? When other bodies ask for more money, they undergo an independent review of their current use of finances and earn increases by improving performance.

There was an attempt 10 years ago to introduce a soft system of quality assurance but the universities saw it off. It was based on a department's view of itself (and few were modest), with the opportunity for evaluators to vary that assessment by only one grade up or down. It avoided crucial evidence such as the quality of interaction in teaching sessions. Its inbuilt weaknesses and complexity gave the universities the chance to discredit it.

Let me make my position quite clear. Universities should be publicly funded in a manner that enables them to give undergraduates a high-quality experience and to undertake advanced research. The principle of free school education should apply to higher education. It is unacceptable that young people who by 18 can serve in the Armed Forces and vote and who have been carefully weaned away from dependence on parents should suddenly be thrown back into total financial dependence, irrespective of family income. That is no way to treat adults. I reject the argument that the country can't afford it.

The question is value for money for the taxpayer and universities must demonstrate that they are effective stewards of public resources. There is no evidence of business-type scrutiny of individual departments. The balance of student teaching time is uneconomic with some universities having students in classes for less than half the calendar year and, in many courses, few classes in a day. The notion that the rest of the day is for reading is risible. Students in the past were at university for three or four years not because of the course content but to give them time to mature and to enable them to earn money in long holidays to help their families. These reasons are no longer sustainable.

There is evidence of some universities reducing the length of time it takes to achieve postgraduate degrees but generally students spend too little of their overall student life engaged in learning. Many degrees could be telescoped into the number of weeks actually needed, or the slack time taken up by overdue attention to work experience in all studies not just in a few such as medicine. That could generate income for the students or for the universities.

So before they receive any more money, universities' use of current resources should be externally assessed, the content of courses should be adjusted to ensure proper use of the time set aside for degrees and, importantly, the teaching side of university life should be open to independent quality evaluation. Few governments have the courage to take on universities but doing so might be more popular than they think.

The research side of university life has a built-in accountability determined by the probity and value of the research. This does not happen for the teaching element that is the significant part of what the taxpayer buys. Of course, there are outstanding university teachers but that is down to personality and individual commitment. There is no requirement, as there should be, for university teachers to have any training in teaching or relevant staff development.

Just because students are beyond school age does not mean teaching them is a more straightforward process. I heard a vice-principal whose background was in school education justifying the failure of university first-year courses to take account of the prior learning and differing qualifications of new students by claiming that it was impractical for lecturers to do this. It is no different from the requirement placed on teachers in primary 1 or in a secondary school receiving children from anything up to 20 different primaries and it is a reasonable expectation of universities.

There are many stories of student dissatisfaction with courses. How easy is it, I wonder, for a student to raise such concerns through a complaints system and have them considered confidentially and effectively? Universities are unaccountable places. Lecturers do not like being held to account for the quality of their teaching, although they accept that their peers and commercial interests will evaluate their research.

In addition, as a prerequisite for more finance, universities should have a transparent, published entrance policy. At present it is an obscure lottery. I know well from discussions with universities over the acceptability of new school qualifications that their spokesmen can deliver the institutional view but cannot speak for individual departments which can impose sometimes prejudiced and often misinformed conditions.

It will always be the case that popular universities select and others recruit but there should be a published standard for entry to every course and, if you get it, you have a place at a university although not necessarily the one of your first choice. The taxpayer should settle for no less.

So, universities probably do need more money. Students certainly do. The price should be a review of the nature of existing courses, a value for money audit, training and continuing professional development for lecturers with teaching commitments and a robust independent system of quality assurance to reassure taxpayers that there is consistent quality across the sector.

In saying that, I am not recommending the translation into higher education of an inspection model designed for schools. There are many innovative ways of devising quality evaluation procedures and a full-time inspectorate is a historical inheritance rather than an essential model.

The point is the principle: no taxation without evaluation.

Douglas Osler is former senior chief inspector of education.

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