The Post-Dearing Agenda
Penny WelchSchool of Humanities, Languages and Social Sciences, University of Wolverhampton, Stafford Street, Wolverhampton, WV1 1SB
Tel: 01902 322466 Fax: 01902 322739 Email: P.Welch@wlv.ac.uk
[Originally published in PSA News, June 1998]
Both the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (CVCP) and the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) have been working hard over the last few months to implement key parts of the Dearing Report, namely recommendations on the quality and standards of (mainly) undergraduate programmes.
The CVCP want the Institute for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (ILTHE) to be set up and ready to undertake accreditation of programmes of training for new and established academic staff by Autumn 1998. The QAA plan to establish a draft qualifications framework and train Registered External Examiners by the end of 1998, to achieve an articulation of expected standards of student attainment in 21 subjects by September 1999, and to have all new systems in place by the end of 2000. The details of the CVCP's plans can be found on their website, http://www.cvcp.ac.uk and the QAA's in their March 1998 bulletin, Higher Quality.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) is currently discussing how to use funding incentives to increase access to higher education for working class students and students with disabilities. It is also considering a variety of options for rewarding high quality teaching. Arguments against the option of giving additional funding to institutions with high scores in the Teaching Quality Assessments are well made by James Wright, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Newcastle in the THES 17/4/98. 'As soon as we see that funding is for the benefit of all students (and not a reward for the providers), the self-evident rightness of rewarding one group of providers at the expense of others evaporates'.
All the other developments outlined above can be seen as positive for higher education as a whole. More attention to how students learn and how academics teach should have beneficial effects on both groups. Greater clarity about programmes and qualifications will help prospective students and employers of graduates. Streamlined systems of quality assurance ought to be easier and less costly to operate. Financial incentives for widening access should have more impact than exhortation alone. Above all, the planned changes will strengthen higher education's case for additional funding in the forthcoming comprehensive spending review.
But from other perspectives, the nature, scale and speed of these developments present some problems. Compliance with the government's agenda can be seen as acceptance of central control, uniformity, and reduced institutional autonomy. The desired changes will not be achieved without a significant amount of additional work by academics and institutional managements. The short timescales for consultation on all issues have permitted (or will permit) the latter rather than the former to contribute to shaping the debates.
Whatever our feelings about the post-Dearing agenda, we ought to spend some time seeking to influence, through our trades union branch, Head of Department or representatives on relevant committees, the responses of our institutions to the Green Paper and the HEFCE proposals and finding out their views and intentions on the Institute for Learning and Teaching and the new quality framework.