How much do national University standards matter?

by Stephen Tall on August 3, 2009

The BBC reports:

Universities in England are failing to safeguard degree standards, according to a damning report from MPs. The current system for ensuring quality is “out of date and should be replaced”, the Commons universities select committee concluded. “… “We are extremely concerned that inconsistency in standards is rife and there is a reluctance to address this issue,” said [Lib Dem MP] Mr [Phil] Willis, chair of the Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee.

Lib Dem blogger ‘Costigan Quist’ is sanguine:

… what of the complaint that degrees from different institutions aren’t directly comparable? That a 2:1 in Geography from Sheffield University might not demonstrate exactly the same level of intelligence or attainment that a 2:1 in Geography from Clare College, Cambridge.

Well, of course not. And without imposing some fatuous national curriculum on our universities, or a whole layer of stifling bureaucracy, how could it be otherwise.

But it doesn’t matter. Students and employers can cope with this. Not perfectly, but then what it? In this case the cure would be far worse than the disease.

It’s an issue that gets to the heart of the classic liberal dilemma: how do we guarantee freedom for local institutions while ensuring consistency of national standards?

Liberals of course champion the principle that universities should remain autonomous institutions, academically free to devise and set their curricula and examinations. But what of the prospective student considering entering university and incurring a lifetime’s debt, and wanting to know, really know, which university is going to train their mind the best? And what of the prospective employer with two candidates for one job, and wanting to know, really know, which of their degree courses really tested them the most? Surely students and employers have a right to have some external, independent way of determining which degree from which university is objectively best?

The report sets out the Committee’s views plainly:

We consider that so long as there is a classification system it is essential that it should categorise all degrees against a consistent set of standards across all higher education institutions in England. … We conclude that a key task of a reformed QAA, in consultation with higher education institutions and government, should be to define the characteristics of each class of honours degree and to ensure that the standards which each university draws up and applies are derived from these classification standards.

The question is: is this practical? Or is University UK’s fear justified:

Maintaining standards is absolutely vital but we reject the suggestion that the way to improve the system that protects standards is to create some super-quango or Ofsted-style Quality and Standards Agency. This seems to us a sledgehammer to crack a nut. For inspectors to judge content and level of achievement could logically lead to national exams based on a national curriculum, just as we have in schools. It has been recognised – internationally and by successive UK Governments – that autonomy is key to a successful and responsive higher education system.

“The raft of centralising recommendations appear to us ill thought-through, disproportionate to the scale of any problem identified, and made without supporting evidence. They also give no acknowledgement of the costs of some of the proposals. This is unhelpful at a time of financial constraints and when our priorities must be on front line teaching and maintaining the quality of the student experience.