If anything, an underestimation…

THE reports on a study by KPMG, commissioned by Hefce, the headline claim of which is that UK Universities spend a cool billion pounds on quality assurance. (The full report is here.) Now, paragraph 68 lists the kinds of activities that count as quality assurance. Some are obvious: validating new courses, or completing and discussing annual monitoring. However, the list also includes ‘assessment of, and feedback to, students’. Hold on, there. That counts as quality assurance? Then, paragraph 74 tells us that the average academic staff member spends 8% of their time on quality assurance. The rule of thumb used to plan staff workloads is that one quarter of the total time allocated to teaching is spent on assessment (another quarter on preparation, and half on delivery). Everyone knows that this is a lousy rule of thumb, but even assuming it is correct, a not particularly grueling teaching load would yield around 15% of total academic staff time spent on assessment. So we’re already nearly double KPMG’s figure, and we haven’t even sat down in a meeting… Now, KPMG puts academic staff time as roughly 37% of the total economic cost of quality assurance; so, we have to add at least another 37% to their overall figure to compensate for that absurd value for the assessment of students. So, make that a super-cool 1.37 billion.

The publication of this work corresponds to an announcement of proposals to abolish the six-year cycle of institutional reviews. The two news items are obviously related, since a big part of the KPMG brief was to estimate the savings that eliminating these reviews would yield (the whole of section five in the report is devoted to this). This savings was difficult to estimate and KPMG has to resort to a pretty silly methodology in order to arrive at a figure (see paragraphs 11 and 154; basically, they cherry pick the data to exclude any institutions that didn’t believe there would be much savings — all you young researchers out there, please do not try this at home…) Their artificially inflated figure for savings is 90 million. A fair whack, to be sure, but less than a tenth of the total; no doubt BIS was hoping they would have been still more selective in their cherries.

Suppose we accept the figure. It still means that above 90% of the quality assurance cost is self-inflicted. Obviously, quality assurance is necessary — especially if it includes assessment of and feedback to students, and likewise no one would want universities to offer courses on a whim, nor allow any of their services to operate without oversight. Nevertheless, the opportunities for internal cost savings are absolutely enormous.



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