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Teaching Excellence: a quality foundation

  • 25 February 2016
  • By Douglas Blackstock

This guest blog, responding to HEPI’s newest publication (Designing a Teaching Excellence Framework: Lessons from other sectors by Louisa Darian) has been kindly contributed by Douglas Blackstock, Chief Executive of the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education.

Last week the Executive Director of the Finnish quality agency told a meeting in Glasgow that ‘Britain is shooting its own leg’. She actually meant England, but folks outside the UK don’t get the distinction, and she was talking about the discrediting of a quality assurance system that is widely regarded as the world’s best.

In amongst Louisa Darian’s informative and helpful paper on lessons learnt from other sectors – specifically Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission – another bullet is fired, in a forceful criticism of use of current quality arrangements for the forthcoming Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).

The paper makes some valuable recommendations, from the need for stability in the regulatory framework to the importance of using a range of evidence in the TEF. It also argues the need for a TEF that ensures higher education choices are informed by the quality of students’ experiences, in a way that they aren’t currently. I agree with that aspiration.

Don’t get me wrong, when it comes to the nature of Higher Education Review in England, I hold my hands up; it hasn’t delivered all we had hoped it would. But the assertion that our teams of reviewers only look at processes and therefore QAA reviews aren’t credible as level 1 of the TEF doesn’t stand up to examination.

Here are some facts about our reviews.

Yes, in reaching judgements we do look at processes, and they offer relevant evidence. But we look at much, much more – including submissions from the student body about students’ experiences. We meet staff and students and they tell us what they think. Data on students’ outcomes offer our reviewers leads to follow. The result is a rich picture of overall quality.

We search out good practice – reviews are not only about threshold compliance. From 2013 to 15 we cited 295 examples of good practice in learning, teaching and assessment. We highlighted examples from the University of Southampton (its Curriculum Innovation Programme offers students fantastic opportunities to get involved in interdisciplinary study), Blackpool and the Fylde College (where varied approaches to assessment are directly relevant to the world of work), and many others.

It’s right that 80 per cent of providers have had a satisfactory review. That may be high, but it still leaves 20 per cent that haven’t – and that’s what we, HEFCE and others see as the real problem. We work closely to ensure providers meet the requirements of their action plans – evidence of quality assurance making a difference for students. In some cases the poor provision we uncover is significant. I’ll never forget the review of a college in Manchester that found courses at honours and master’s level with assessment criteria including the ability to ‘identify scissors, tape measures, pins and to be able to identify the use of coloured pencils…’.

So, QAA reviews do provide a credible baseline for the TEF in the first year and beyond. They are a rigorous blend of institutional self-evaluation and peer review by highly experienced academics and students. They are legally defensible and are emulated around the world. Importantly, they are also a means for students to influence their universities and colleges.

Tatjana Lipai, lead student representative for Salford City College’s 2014 review, described afterwards how the ‘process of preparation for the review has helped the College identify its strengths and weaknesses and plan further improvements’. She told us: ‘I am proud that my contribution has made an impact on the quality of learning at my institution.’

That means a lot to me. I believe reviews like these will help form a solid basis from which the TEF can grow into something meaningful and valued.

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