HL Deb 20 February 2001 vol 622 cc594-6

3 p.m.

Baroness Perry of Southwark asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the new Quality Assurance Agency rules will improve the quality of academic life in Britain's universities.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, external assessment has a place in higher education and the reports produced can be a useful source of evidence on which universities can draw in seeking to enhance teaching quality. The revised review method which the Quality Assurance Agency will be introducing from autumn 2001 follows extremely full consultation with the sector. It is designed to be far less bureaucratic than its predecessor, which, I am sure, will be welcomed.

Baroness Perry of Southwark

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply, but is she aware of the burden which is placed upon universities, even under the new procedures, with 168 rules which they have to follow; nine codes of practice, and we are promised more to come; 22 subject bench-marks for student teaching and 20 more still to come? Those are specific burdens which universities are carrying which have little to do with the overall quality of teaching. Will she also assure the House that the academic freedom and diversity of universities can be preserved, despite the fact that those rules apply equally and across the board to all universities even though their admissions and intake may be very different?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I start by giving the House an assurance that the academic freedom of universities and their diversity must be preserved. I should add also that the new system has not yet been introduced in England and it will not start until September. So it is early days to start condemning it and questioning whether or not it will reduce the burden. It is certainly the Government's intention that the burden should be reduced; that there should be far more self-assessment; that the amount of material which the individual subject department must produce for a review will be much smaller than in the past.

Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware of the mountain of paperwork which is currently required under the teaching quality assessment and its sibling in bureaucracy, the research assessment exercise, which obviously has the purpose of assessing the research output? Will she accept that all universities, I think, recognise the need for scrutiny of standards in teaching and in research? But is she aware that some university departments employ somebody effectively full-time to prepare the paperwork for those exercises? Will she tell the House how many universities employ staffs of administrators in order to prepare the paperwork to be devoured by those time-consuming exercises?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for accepting that external review, whether in the area of teaching or research, is highly desirable. Universities need to be accountable just as any other consumer of very substantial amounts of public money.

But I accept also that the burden, particularly for teaching quality assessment, has become rather bureaucratic. It is for those reasons that a new system is being introduced in the autumn. We need to wait to see how well that works.

As regards the research assessment exercise, it is well understood by everybody in the university system that we must be selective in how we fund research. We cannot give the same amount of money to every department, regardless of the quality or the extent of its research. For that reason, the RAE was introduced some years ago and it is accepted widely across the system that it is necessary.

But once again, changes are being introduced in the next round which should reduce the amount of preparation that departments have to do.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, does the Minister have any estimate of the proportion by which costs will be reduced on QAAs under the new system compared with the existing system?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I cannot give a precise figure as to how far the cost will be reduced but I should expect it to be substantially reduced. For example, the number of individual subjects to be reviewed is being reduced by about one-third. The number of days which the people undertaking the review—and we must remember that it is largely peer review—will be reduced by about one-fifth. Those changes in themselves should make a substantial difference. But the real difference will be in that the amount of material that has to be produced specially for those exercises is being slashed. It will be extremely limited compared with what it has been in the past.

Lord Laming

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the deep concern felt by some university staff over the relative decline in their salary levels? Can the Minister say anything to encourage them?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I think that is rather a long way from the Question on the Order Paper. However, I am happy to inform the noble Lord that the Government have put in a substantial additional amount of funding for university pay, not just for academics but for all staff in universities. That should mean that universities are better able to reward their staff as they would like to.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, there appears to be no evidence to support any significant reduction in the overall burden for external scrutiny. Is the Minister aware that the Middlehurst evaluation of academic review trials in chemistry, law and history found absolutely no evidence to support what the noble Baroness is claiming to be the case?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, he could hardly have found any evidence as the new system does not come into play until September.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I said that they were trials which have already preceded the changes.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, such trials are hardly true evidence of a new system that is being introduced. I do not believe that what has been claimed in those trials has any validity.