Quality Assessment in HE

An interesting week for the wonks, as HEFCE announced that it was reviewing the arrangements for quality assurance in the sector, stating:

“UK higher education is undergoing rapid change. Our future quality assessment arrangements must continue to be internationally respected, to have the confidence of students, and to support a world-class HE sector.
We are looking to develop innovative approaches that are risk-based, proportionate, affordable, and low burden. Any new arrangements must build on established strengths and good practice, including institutions’ own robust quality assurance systems, and reflect the values and cultures of higher education. They will also need to demonstrate value for taxpayers’ and students’ money”

and after feedback from various stakeholders, will put the work out to tender.

Obviously, QAA (the current provider of Quality Assurance) had something to say:

“QAA has internationally recognised expertise in providing quality assurance and enhancement to an exceptional standard. In recent years, we have continued to adapt the quality assurance framework to meet the needs of a growing and dynamic sector, working with HE, FE and alternative providers. We look forward to continuing the development of quality assessment, protecting the public interest and supporting the UK higher education sector’s international reputation for excellence.”

Clearly assuming they’ll get the contract, or at least pointing out what a good job they have done so far.

And our university mission groups chipped in, with somewhat inevitable responses.  The Russell Group said:

“Universities with a strong track record of success which have been delivering high quality education for a long time should be subject to considerably less inspection and bureaucracy than newer institutions.

“Our universities will not flourish if they are over-regulated. Resources should be focused where problems of quality are most likely to occur.”

While million+ came up with:

“Vice-Chancellors will clearly want to be involved in this review but HEFCE needs to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. While there have been concerns about the QAA’s modus operandi, the system is certainly not broken and has the advantage of being UK-wide in scope and internationally recognised.”

I think the two mission groups said exactly what we would expect them to. I do wonder who the Russell Group are thinking of as “newer institutions”. That wouldn’t be former polytechnics with a 100 years of HE history would it? Or does it mean the real new kids on the block, the private providers and FE providers of HE?

Quality assurance arrangements may seem arcane, but all of this does matter, and as David Kernohan identifies over on his blog, it matters to every academic. Quality assurance can be seen as an evil which is inflicted upon institutions, and by institutions onto their staff, but the basic principles outlined in the QAA code of practice are eminently reasonable.

The devil of course is in the details: firstly how individual universities choose to interpret the code and operationalise quality through a series of managerial interventions, and secondly how an review of a University’s “quality” can be anything more than a review of its QA processes.

Seeking a system that is “risk-based, proportionate, affordable, and low burden” might come as pleasant music to the ears of someone buried deep in generating a monitoring report that will be read by few, and followed up by fewer, but for the burden to be reduced internally within universities, then a clear steer will be needed on what processes can be simplified and reduced (or, dare I say it  – removed). If the assessment regime is to be risk based and proportionate, then maybe institutions need to look inside to their own processes and make sure that these too are risk based and proportionate.

It would mean developing criteria to assess and score risk – but with the development of data on award performances in terms of inputs and outcomes, student evaluations, coupled with a business risk analysis (with on-campus teaching low risk, compared to overseas in a language other than English), then this should not be ijnsurmountable.

It would mean a QA system where an approach of “one size fits all” would no longer apply, but it might allow some staff to spend less time on activities that can become mindless busywork, and focus more on the real work of a university – generating knowledge and helping students to succeed.

One thought on “Quality Assessment in HE

  1. The health service thought it could be regulated in a similar way 20 years ago. Unfortunately regulation became ever more burdensome as staff needed to prove exactly what they had done, why, when, how and how much. The paperwork mushroomed but the quality of care did not really improve. I fear that any oversight will be swamped very quickly by the need to evidence specific detail rather than simply an effective QA structure.

    We can but hope for the best.

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