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7 May 2001

Brideshead inspected? No, sir!

Francis Beckett explains how teaching at the top universities managed to escape official scrutiny

By Francis Beckett

The high-pitched cackling you hear in Britain’s top universities this month is the sound of our poshest academics crowing with triumph.

For three years, the newly formed Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) has been trying do what it was created for, which is to check on the quality of teaching in universities. The fury of the 19 universities that make up the elite Russell Group – the likes of Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, Bristol, Edinburgh, Leeds and the London School of Economics – at the idea that the quality of their teaching should be inspected has been wonderful to behold. “We don’t need benchmarking,” one splenetic vice-chancellor spluttered. “Dammit, we are the benchmark.”

Now, the government has suddenly and unexpectedly forced the agency to cut its inspections by 40 per cent. The reduction will take place in the universities that did best in previous inspections. The implicit message is that top universities such as Oxford and Cambridge are far too splendid to be inspected too often.

They won, not only through effective public propaganda, but through knowing where real power lies: they appealed over the heads of education ministers to the Prime Minister, to whom the Cambridge vice-chancellor, Sir Alec Broers, has unrivalled access. But more important still, they seem to have offered Tony Blair a remarkable deal.

For ages, with the energy they could spare from abusing the quality inspectors, the Russell Group universities have been demanding that they should be allowed to charge their students “top-up fees”. These are tuition fees above and beyond the £1,000 a year that has been charged to all students since Labour came to power – the Russell Group universities argue that they need the extra money to maintain their international standing.

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In February, the government ruled out top-up fees for the life of the next Labour government. Vice-chancellors met in Newcastle and everybody expected vehement protests. But nothing happened. Those who asked what on earth was going on got a knowing look that said: you’ll see. And on 21 March came the announcement of the cut in inspections. The trade-off was clear: the vice-chancellors, in return, will not bang on about top-up fees in the run-up to the election.

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The deal could not have been done without Blair’s intervention. The minister responsible for higher education, Baroness Blackstone, strongly advocates inspection for universities – a position she underlined at the Quality Assurance Agency’s Commons reception last month. Its wings have been clipped over her dead body.

The Russell Group and the universities’ house magazine, the Times Higher Education Supplement, have waged a campaign against the agency and its chief executive, John Randall, with a tabloid-style brutality that could be achieved only by cloistered academics. The agency has been blamed for everything, including the rise in student drop-out rates – because “quality assessments take up time that lecturers might otherwise spend with students”.

The campaign was fronted by Alan Ryan, warden of New College, Oxford. He accused Randall’s agency of being like the Soviet machine, which “crushed creativity and wasted resources”. Its inspectors “seem to dislike intellectual activity on principle and to share Stalin’s view that variety is the first step to treason”. They wanted, he wrote, to “impose the mentality of the apparatchik”. Another Ryan rant alleged that the inspectors are not of high enough intellectual quality to teach in a fine place such as Oxford, the implication being that they should stick their grubby, proletarian fingers only into jumped-up polytechnics. Top Oxbridge academics are often appalling snobs, intellectually and socially, which is one of the reasons why Oxford still takes half its intake from the 7 per cent of the population who attend private fee-charging schools. They expect menials from places such as the agency to approach them humbly. And humble isn’t Randall’s style, as they found when he turned his attention to the Oxbridge MA. Oxbridge graduates can pick up their MA without any extra studying at all. Randall wants to end this anomaly. He says there has to be clarity about what a British MA means. He faced cold fury from Oxford and Cambridge for interfering with their sacred traditions.

Does it all matter? Yes, it matters terribly, for three reasons. First, we have a Labour prime minister who allowed inner-city comprehensive teachers to be criticised constantly and demoralisingly by Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools, but who gave in at once when academics from the country’s richest universities told him they didn’t like the look of the inspectors they got.

Second, the institutions most in need of inspection will not get it. The Russell Group universities are proud of being research institutions where teaching comes second. It is through research that they maximise their income. So they pressurise their academics to publish endless incomprehensible articles in obscure academic journals, rather than making sure that they teach well.

Third, the standard of teaching is the one thing potential students need to know. After the abolition of grants and the introduction of fees, university education is now an investment comparable to buying a house. Before making that sort of investment, a student ought to have a full quality report to help choose where to make it. Only the Quality Assurance Agency can provide that, and Blair has muzzled it.