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Browne and gown

Lord Browne of Madingley FGS

Ted Nield wonders if Lord Browne of Madingley FGS envisages an enhanced role for learned societies in his recent proposals for Higher Education...

Geoscientist 20.12 December 2010/January 2011

Lord Browne’s much anticipated report Securing a sustainable future for higher education (October 2010) is the most far-reaching review of the sector since Lord Dearing’s report-to-end-all-reports was published in 1997. Mainstream media coverage focused on the most immediately contentious aspects of the former BP Chief Executive’s recommendations, such as removing the student number cap and raising tuition fees. However he also suggested that science (and other “strategic” subjects, defined presumably by government and industry) should be protected from his proposed removal of course subsidies (which would effectively privatise university arts, humanities and social sciences). Another boost for scientists came a week later, when the Chancellor announced his intention to peg state STEM funding at current values - a real-terms decline over four years of a mere 9%.

However another of Lord Browne’s suggestions went almost unremarked. This was his suggestion to replace the Higher Education Funding Council (HEFCE) with a Higher Education Council. It may not sound dramatic, but this new body would also subsume the current Office of Fair Access, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator and the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) - and would assume responsibility for, in Browne’s words, “setting and enforcing baseline quality levels” in degree courses.

Attempts to define an acceptable regime of external quality assurance for UK universities have been mired in difficulty for 20 years. Two processes - quality assessment (by funding councils) and quality audit (by the universities’ own Higher Education Quality Council, HEQC) emerged in 1994. “Assessment”, essentially the inspection of teaching, existed to ensure that the State got value for taxpayers’ money. “Audit” meanwhile inspected institutions’ quality assurance mechanisms (e.g., the external examiner system) and reported on how well they were working - the self-policing of universities’ self-policing. Universities may have resented external inspection, but they would have rightly decried any attempted government interference in course provision as an unacceptable attack on the principles of academic freedom, and backdoor nationalisation of the academy.

Only three years later, these complimentary processes of internal audit and external assessment were brought together under a new Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), set up as a company limited by guarantee owned by institutions, but with some directors nominated by funding-councils. Four years later still, after even more wrangling, the QAA’s three-fold quality assurance framework, (comprising scrutiny of outcome standards, quality of learning opportunities and of institutional quality management) was accepted and has been operating ever since. In August 2000, HEFCE estimated the annual cost of all this at between £45m and £50m.

Yet, throughout the whole soul-sapping “quality” malarkey, with its doublethink and doublespeak, nobody ever seriously suggested that someone outside universities should set “baseline quality standards” for degrees. Much depends on what Lord Browne means by this perhaps deliberately vague formulation; but it sounds as though he means “baseline standards”. Yet who, if not university academics themselves, could set such standards? Could our distinguished Fellow be envisaging here a role for learned and professional bodies (who already set some “baseline standards” when accrediting degree programmes as part of their system of professional formation)?