Sunday, 2 August 2009

Students & Universities


Personal Statement by Professor Geoffrey Alderman in response to the Report (2 August 2009) of the House of Commons’ Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills


1. On 17 June 2008 I delivered my Inaugural Professorial Lecture at the University of Buckingham. Entitled Teaching Quality Assessment, League Tables and the Decline of Academic Standards in British Higher Education the lecture brought together material I had collected as part of a larger inquiry into the decline of academic standards in UK universities. I concluded that “Academic standards at many British universities are in danger of collapse – and at some have already collapsed - because those responsible for them are unwilling or unable to withstand the pressures coming from the culture of league-tables that many vice-chancellors have been only too happy to embrace.” I pointed especially to the work of the so-called Joint Planning Group (1996), and I accused the members of that body of “cynically betraying the self-regulation that British universities had enjoyed hitherto, and of handing this regulation over to a body – the newly-created Quality Assurance Agency – that has- perforce - been the tool of government in the sacrifice of academic standards on the altar of ‘public information.’

2. Following the delivery of this lecture (and the publicity it attracted) the House of Commons’ Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science & Skills launched a wide-ranging inquiry that focussed, in part, on the findings that I had presented in the lecture. In my own evidence to this inquiry I made the following points:

• Over the past twenty or so years there has been a systemic failure to maintain appropriate academic standards in British higher education.

• The blame for this lies primarily with university chief executives, who have, in general, been willing to subordinate academic standards to their preoccupation with league-tables and ‘market-share.’

• The Quality Assurance Agency has failed to halt this process because of its mistaken belief that the maintenance of standards appropriate to higher education can be achieved through a compliance culture and the standardisation of procedures.

• The QAA needs to be radically refocused so that its processes address academic standards, and the resource decisions that underpin them.

• The current situation, whereby universities enjoy degree-awarding powers in perpetuity, is insupportable.

• Where an institution is found, by the QAA, to be derelict in its supreme duty to maintain standards … financial penalties should be levied, followed if necessary by the partial or complete withdrawal of the authority to award degrees.

3. I am therefore very pleased that the Committee, in its report published earlier today, has broadly endorsed these findings.

4. In particular, I welcome the following statements made by the Committee:

• “the system in England for safeguarding consistent national standards in higher education institutions is out-of-date, inadequate and in urgent need of replacement. The current arrangements with each university responsible for its own standards are no longer meeting the needs of a mass system of higher education in the 21st century with two million students. … it is not acceptable … that Vice-Chancellors cannot give a straightforward answer to the simple question of whether students obtaining first class honours degrees at different universities had attained the same intellectual standards.”

• “The body that currently “assures quality”, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA), focuses almost exclusively on processes, not standards. This needs to change. We call for the QAA to be transformed into an independent Quality and Standards Agency with a remit, statutory if necessary, to safeguard, monitor and report on standards.”

• “We are looking to see a fundamental change in the operation of the QAA and that, if this cannot be achieved within two years, the QAA/Quality and Standards Agency should be abolished and an entirely new organisation be established in its place.”

• “all higher education institutions in England [should] have their accreditation to award degrees reviewed no less often than every 10 years by the reformed QAA. Where the Agency concludes that all or some of an institution’s powers should be withdrawn, we recommend that the Government draw up and put in place arrangements which would allow accreditation to award degrees to be withdrawn or curtailed by the Agency.”

5. It must be a matter of deep regret to all of us involved in the provision of higher education in this country that the sector has proved unable to reform itself, and that it has required a parliamentary investigation to bring these matters under public scrutiny. The sector’s “defensive complacency” to which the Committee has drawn attention must be jettisoned at once, and the grave faults on which the Committee has focussed must be addressed as matters of the utmost urgency.


[NOTE FOR EDITORS: This Statement is issued by Professor Alderman in his personal capacity. Further information about Geoffrey Alderman can be found at:]

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