One buzz-word of the 1990s is quality. Government ministers and funding chiefs dictate that we have systems to improve quality. We have quality control, total quality management, quality systems ad infinitum.
No one would argue against improving quality. But what do quality systems say about how effective a college is, or how its performance compares a neighbour's?
Quality systems describe processes which, if you follow them, will improve your quality. The only trouble is, they don't - not always. Colleges can gain top inspection grades for curriculum areas while being rated only average (grade 3) when it comes to quality.
In fact, quality systems simply tell you whether you're doing what you say you'll do. They usually contain targets which colleges set for themselves. Natural timidity being what it is, these are often attainable with one hand tied behind your back.
If you set your target and follow the process and can prove you've achieved your target - well, that's quality, isn't it? Better to be a quality two-star college than aim for four stars and miss them.
Another problem is that the system can fail to trap the essence of the thing. We may be required to measure the number of individual student interviews each personal tutor gets through. But that says nothing about the tutor who has had endless patience with one student devastated by a family break-up, or of work with the parents of an anorexic child.
Quality systems don't allow for crises. It's ideal to apply them to a straightforward process using inert raw material. Anything less inert than a mass of adolescents is hard to imagine, except for those who aren't even "ert" enough to come to college. When they do, they demand a high degree of customer care - now!
We don't ask them what they want or need when we adopt a quality system even if we build in student consultation as part of it. And this means that our system for improving "quality" is likely to be in conflict with the concept of customer care.
The business of the college is to give the students a service they can appreciate and feel they are benefiting from. We need to ask the students what they want and allow this to inform our choice when setting up or inventing a quality system.
For a start, there are tensions between the current students and the long-term aims of a college: we may have a long-term plan for quality improvement, but the students are not interested in our long-term plan. If they think quality needs to be improved, they want the improvements now, while they are still around to benefit.
No system will win the approval of the students unless it brings about immediate improvements to those aspects of the service which students most criticise, even if they are not the most important overall.
Students expect their teachers to know their business, and to be able to communicate it effectively. We all want that, and it is comparatively easy to check up on. Investors in People is an appropriate quality system which can rectify shortcomings and ensure that staff are offered training for the new roles they may be asked to take up.
But if students are asked from the outset, they will add qualities which are far more difficult to quantify. Teachers should be as interested in the student, as in the subject; they should be strict but fair; they should set high standards and know when it is appropriate to waive them for particular students; they must be not only interested but interesting; they must have a sense of humour which students can appreciate, but they must never make jokes to seem to be of the students' own generation.
The teacher who can deliver all of the above is a rare bird. But they do exist, and from the customer care point of view they can break every rule in the book and get away with it. They are, in this respect, quality teachers. The teachers who don't have these characteristics are unlikely to acquire them through any quality system we can apply. Yet quality systems are applied in business to give customer satisfaction.
We shall go on trying to improve the college and quality systems can help to improve quality. Fortunately our students are realistic and forgiving. They don't expect us to be perfect, just serious people taking them, and the job, seriously.
Anne Smith is principal of John Ruskin College, Croydon.