Transparent arrangements for tuition fees, credit arrangements for student transfers, anxiety about arrangements for quality assessment; these are part of the concerns of an Academic Registrar. I have them all neatly recorded in my notebooks from summer term 1998.
I’ve had several looks at 1997/98, which was my first full academic year as an academic registrar. In the first term we were still digesting the Dearing report, the second term focused on strategic challenges and the opportunities for lifelong learning, and I even had a look at that year’s AUA Conference. Inevitably the third term of any academic year is dominated by assessment and I have notes recording the challenges of two-tier examination boards, which appear to have gone off very efficiently (helped by the simple trick of being able to bring up student records on a big screen). There’s also the end-of-year cycle of committees, where Parkinson’s law requires that policy development has to expand to fill the time available for its completion so the agendas are all full.
The Government had brought in a £1000 fee, but had managed to skip much of the wisdom that Dearing had imparted into his proposed scheme and we were preparing for the practicalities of an up-front fee payable by students or their families. The fees working work has to grapple with payment terms: invoices and instalments; credit cards or post-dated cheques; fines or loss of privileges for missed deadlines.
Local Vice-Chancellors had agreed to set up a group to look at credit rating and transfer. Six HEIs had gathered to compare structures with a view to better facilitating movement. It emerged that we had an interesting range of module sizes; 5, 10, 15, 20, 30 and 40. Some HEIs had specific links with FECs, and it was reported that there would be strong support from FE for offering generic first year provision that could lead onto different HEIs. However, the research intensive university in the group reported that while it did do transfers, these were limited to the Russell Group ‘because of academic reasons’ (says my notes). The meeting ended with the prospect of some subject areas meeting to align curricula (naturally nothing came of that).
The Dearing report had tried to bring together the twin systems of quality assessment (run by the funding councils) and quality audit (run by HEQC). There were a lot of meetings focused on what could be expected from the QAA. Teaching quality assessment (TQA) was continuing, but complaints about the workload were growing stronger. Hopes that an enhanced external examiner system could replace external assessment were fading as the notion of a register of examiners lost traction. Attending a QAEN meeting in May, I noted the conflicts in the sector, including what should be done about ‘iffy’ standards – would QAA step in? As with our current debate on subject TEF, there were issues about how we should define subjects, especially when these were constructs outside an HEI’s own structures. Work would progress to build up the ‘academic infrastructure’ – which is all now coming down…
1998 vs 2018
There doesn’t seem to be much difference twenty years apart. The ebb and flow of the academic year is pretty similar; plagiarism hearings mingle with meetings about admissions targets. There was an anxiety about the impact of changes to national systems, especially the unintended consequences for providers not in the golden triangle. The thread through all of this is trying to find the best solution for the institution and its students in the face of shifting external pressures.
Meantime, I do wonder if I’m currently taking detailed enough notes to make sense of all of this in 2038 when, no doubt, some of the policy issues on fees, credit and quality will be settled.