Fear of managers and ministers leaves the QAA reluctant to ask if academics can speak freely, argues Geoffrey Alderman.
This year, I plucked up the courage to suggest that the Quality Assurance Agency extend its code of practice to include a section on academic freedom. At present, the code is completely silent on the matter, and its inspectors are not encouraged - and are certainly under no obligation - to inquire whether an institution undergoing review even has a policy on this most fundamental principle.
So, in future, could its staff start to audit academic freedom when they do their rounds of the UK's universities, I inquired? The response was swift and dismissive.
To add another section to the code would, I was told, incur the wrath of the Better Regulation Task Force, the Quality Assurance Framework Review Group and a host of other quangos. In any case, I was informed, there is apparently a "waiting list" of allegedly more important topics to be added to the audit agenda. And, no doubt in an attempt to kill my initiative stone dead, the QAA added that if a university was indeed acting illegally, "then the remedy lies in the courts".
Academics are a disputatious people. More than that, the ability to dispute, to question and to challenge is fundamental to the purposes of the academic community.
These truths need not be laboured. But what is perhaps less self-evident is the obligation incurred by all reputable institutions of higher education to provide and maintain an infrastructure that supports the right of its academic staff to be disputatious: to challenge received wisdom and to challenge the manner in which institutions order their own affairs so as to deliver this freedom, which is basic to the mission of every reputable university.
Unless an institution guarantees its staff - and students - the right to express themselves freely within the law of the land and without fear of institutional reprisal, it cannot rightly claim to be of good quality.
Over the past few years, a number of high-profile cases have put this obligation to uphold freedom in question. Whistleblowers have been harassed, bullied and dismissed, their careers often ruined in the process.
Academics with unpopular opinions have been suspended, their "voluntary" resignations obtained through strong-arm managerialism and hushed up through the imposition of "gagging" clauses in their severance arrangements.
The QAA cannot be unaware of these pressures and of the oppressive atmospheres in which they flourish. The excuses offered to me for the agency's inaction were frankly absurd. If it really is politically impossible at the moment to add a new section to the code, why not work academic freedom into an existing section - that dealing with "Student complaints on academic matters", say? Why not simply enlarge this section so that it reads "Student and staff complaints on academic matters"?
Another way of squeezing academic freedom on to the audit agenda would be to include it as a heading in collaborative provision audits: does the collaborative partner give the same academic freedom to its staff as is given (or not) by the awarding institution?
As for the legal argument, this too lacks substance. If the QAA is going to say that where there is a law it will leave the law to get on with it, why audit student support and guidance? Students are now fee-payers, so they can have recourse to consumer protection legislation and the Trade Descriptions Act, to say nothing of the excellent work being done by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education.
If the QAA is reluctant to tread any path that leads or could lead to a legal remedy, why permit auditors to inquire into such matters as equal opportunities and student disability support? Indeed, in the consumer-driven society to which UK universities must now adapt, there are very few of the QAA's famous "precepts" that cannot be tested in the courts.
The reluctance of the QAA to concern itself with academic freedom has nothing to do with the lame excuses that I have been given. It has everything to do with a congenital unwillingness to question the autonomy of university managers and the impact of government policies.
It is for this reason that British university audits do not address salary levels and that none of the QAA's critical reports on the delivery of higher education in the further education sector asks whether the quantum of government funding of this provision might not be ultimately to blame for evident shortcomings.
The truth is that the QAA is the creature of Government. A truly independent agency would feel free to add these important items to its checklist.