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New arrangements for quality assurance in Higher Education

  • 2 May 2013

Anthony McClaran provides a review of the recent developments in quality assurance and focuses on the work that has gone into developing the new method, Higher Education Review.  He argues that the 2011 White Paper should be seen more as an evolutionary development rather than a radical departure, when viewed against the backdrop of the recent history of public and political debates around external quality assurance.  These established some key cross-cutting themes for the future direction of HE quality assurance in England on which the White Paper builds: a new emphasis on the centrality of the student experience; a need to ensure better public information about higher education; and a closer engagement with the  ‘public interest’ which the QAA was explicitly established to serve in 1997.    And in terms of the new risk-based approach, this should be viewed in the context of the strong deregulatory momentum which has been achieved in quality assurance over the past 15 years.

Nevertheless, he argues that the move towards a more risk-based approach marks a significant new stage for external quality assurance for HE.  Previous models had stressed the importance of treating every institution identically to ensure fairness – an approach arguably well-suited to a relatively homogenous sector.  It is less appropriate for an increasingly diverse sector with a significant number of new entrants of very different kinds.  In addition, there are other challenges to address including the need to develop a robust system which can flag up future risk within a provider but which also avoids stifling the very innovation which is at the heart of a successful higher education system. Alongside this is the need to develop a system which can adapt to the new emerging challenges of new providers and new methods of delivery such as MOOCs.

In shaping a more risk-based approach, Anthony McClaran makes clear that any changes were underpinned by 3 key principles: that a universal system of quality assurance would be retained for HE providers, based on continuous improvement and effective dissemination of best practice; any new approach would be robust and rigorous; and that students would continue to play a prominent role in assessing their own academic experiences. In developing the new method, Higher Education Review, peer review (not inspection) remains central as does the role of students. Implementation is due to begin in the 2013-14 academic year with the first reviews taking place in early 2014.

Professor Roger Brown, providing a critical analysis of the proposed new risk-based approach to quality assurance, argues that the central issue, given the new and more competitive environment in which all higher education institutions are now having to operate, is whether the new regime will be strong enough to protect the future quality and standards of UK higher education.  He argues that there are at least 3 sets of reasons “for supposing that it will not be”:

  • firstly, a fundamental problem with a risk-based approach to quality assurance is that past experience can never be a reliable guide to future performance, bearing in mind the number and diversity of educational activities in which institutions are now engaged both in the UK and abroad. And even though the scope of the review has considerably expanded, it still does not cover all the institutional policies and practices that are recognised as being critical to quality and standards such as the level and quality of student engagement and effort, contact hours and the level and quality of investment in learning resources (which all vary within as well as between institutions); and although on coverage the new regime will be broader (for example now includes HE provided in FECs), it is accepted that it does not cover all the providers whose students are entitled to publicly subsidised loans and will not do so without legislation (which is unlikely to be forthcoming). And as more “for profit” providers who owe their primary loyalty to their owners, rather than their students, enter the market this situation could become even more critical;
  • secondly, the new competitive environment poses a threat to the quality assurance regime founded as it is on “three cardinal assumptions” – that quality assurance is resource blind; that the key to improvement is quality enhancement not just regulation; and that the best mechanism for defining and protecting quality and standards is academic peer review. As the quasi-market in students develops, resource disparities between institutions is likely to grow whilst, in Roger Brown’s view, the threat to the academic community as the guardians of academic standards is “potentially the most damaging implication for quality assurance of the new competitive environment” citing the two most serious cases in recent years in which institutions intervened to override academic decisions in the interests of resourcing and reputation;
  • and thirdly is the question of who controls quality through quality assurance. Roger Brown argues that increasingly the QAA is becoming an agent of HEFCE which in turn is an agent of the Government thus undermining the QAA’s independence and potentially compromising its ability to “hold the ring between the Government and the sector”.

A copy of HEPI Occasional Report 6: New arrangements for quality assurance in Higher Education is available for download here.  The report is part of an occasional series of HEPI Reports in which HEPI provides a platform for distinguished figures to reflect on important issues in higher education policy.

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