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Why University Governors Should Do More to Protect Academic Quality

  • 14 July 2022
  • By Dr Alex Bols

A new report from the Higher Education Policy Institute, Why it is time for university governors to do more on academic quality (HEPI Policy Note 36), notes the growing responsibility that boards of higher education institutions have on issues of academic quality.

The report, which focuses mainly on England, calls on governors to reflect on their understanding of academic life to ensure effective oversight of teaching and learning.

Dr Alex Bols, the author of the report and the Deputy Chief Executive of GuildHE, said:

Teaching and learning is the main activity of most higher education institutions. Yet many of their governing bodies are seen as far removed from issues of academic quality, relying too much on assurances from academic boards.

During the pandemic, governing bodies became more fluent in issues such as emergency regulations, the proportion of Firsts and 2:1s handed out, assessment burdens and the pedagogical differences of online learning. The English regulator, the Office for Students, has imposed clear expectations on governing bodies in relation to maintaining standards. So issues of quality and standards are fast rising up institutional risk registers.

We must expand and deepen the understanding of higher education governing bodies on academic issues. This should include giving them clearer and better information to help them fulfil their functions, as well as ensuring a better balance between the university governing body and the academic board or Senate.

Key points

  • Issues of academic quality and standards are rarely far from the headlines. In particular, there have been concerns expressed by ministers at Westminster about student workload, grade inflation and so-called ‘low-quality’ (or ‘Mickey Mouse’) courses.
  • Tackling these issues is seen as complex and difficult to explain, which can result in knee-jerk political responses. This is especially true when education ministers look at schools and see their power to intervene and direct. However, higher education can be harder to understand, with highly autonomous providers who can design, deliver and assess their own courses while at the same time maintaining their own academic standards. 
  • As a sector, we need to get better at articulating the benefits of a diverse, innovative and responsive higher education sector – able to develop new courses based on student demand and the needs of local and national economies while remaining committed to robust academic standards protected by strong governance.
  • If we do not succeed, we will continue the recent shift from self-regulation to co-regulation to just regulation – with the regulator setting the parameters for what ‘good’ looks like. In particular, this means getting to grips with issues such as grade inflation and demonstrating that we as a sector are robustly safeguarding our own academic standards.
  • The Office for Students is taking ever-more interest in this whole are, with its proposed B3 metrics on continuation, completion and progression as well as the data for the new Teaching Excellence Framework. But this information also provides a useful framework for governing bodies to be able to consider these issues in more depth.
  • Increasingly, university governing bodies have direct responsibility for academic quality issues through the assurances they make, adherence to the Office for Students’ Public Interest Governance Principles and meeting their ongoing conditions of registration.
  • Governing bodies should reflect on their own expertise and understanding of academic life to facilitate effective governor oversight of teaching and learning. They should, in particular, receive regular information on academic issues, including Degree Outcomes Statements, an annual quality report drawing out key performance indicators, a regular review of the Office for Students’s ongoing conditions and, where there are concerns, action plans or even internal audit reports.

Notes for Editors

HEPI was founded in 2002 to influence the higher education debate with evidence. We are UK-wide, independent and non-partisan. We are funded by organisations and higher education institutions that wish to support vibrant policy discussions, as well as through our own events. HEPI is a company limited by guarantee and a registered charity.

1 comment

  1. albert wright says:

    A very timely, informative and helpful report which the lay members of every University Governing Body would benefit from reading.

    However, it does not address the fundamental issue bothering members of the informed public, namely, what are the key performance indicators that can be used on a national basis that can fairly and transparently represent “good / adequate quality” by course and institution.

    Each individual University is totally independent and currently acts as judge and jury on is own performance.

    There is no, national, University Ofsted.

    There is no generally accepted way to monitor and compare the grade value of a First in subject A and subject B at the same University or a first in the same subject between University X and University Y.

    In the domain of algorithms, there is no national formula used by all Universities to create the Grades of undergraduate degrees in the same subject at every University or within subject at the same University.

    They say you can recognise quality when you see it, but with Universities you certainly will never prove it beyond reasonable doubt.

    Everybody now knows that the “computed” cost of every degree is £9,250 a year but the perceived value varies by subject and institution.

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