- This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Kevin McStravock, Lead Policy Officer for the Nations & Europe.
QAA has the privilege of a UK-wide remit, with varying roles across the nations. With this comes a bird’s-eye view of approaches to higher education quality. While the exact way in which higher education is governed, funded and regulated may differ, the devolved nations share a number of key principles in their approaches to quality that help to underpin a high-quality student learning experience. As the sector continues to speculate on what a Westminster election might bring for English higher education, there are lessons that can be learned by looking to our closest neighbours, the UK’s devolved nations.
Co-created standards, owned by the sector, help providers realise a shared vision for student experience
The first lesson is that devolved nation approaches to quality coalesce around shared standards that are co-created by the sector and meet the needs of the respective funder/regulators. Chief among these is the UK Quality Code – a sector-owned commitment to the key components of a high-quality student learning experience. QAA acts as the custodian for the Code. Commitment to the Code enables recognition and mobility on a cross-UK and international basis, meaning students from across the UK and internationally can expect a comparably high-quality learning experience wherever they study in the UK devolved nations.
Its sector-owned nature reflects institutional autonomy, recognises and embeds sector expertise and encourages cross-border collaboration. Historically, the UK Quality Code has been a shared endeavour across the UK, underpinning cross-UK mobility, knowledge exchange and collaboration. The removal of references to the UK Quality Code from the regulatory framework in England, despite opposition from the sector, has since undermined this UK-wide coherence, though providers in England continue to find the Code an important element of their internal quality assurance practices.
A commitment to collaboration and enhancement raises standards and enhances quality across the board
Second, the approaches to quality in the UK’s devolved nations are built on a commitment to collaboration between providers, the independent quality body (QAA) and the funder/regulator. This is demonstrated in the nations’ approach to quality review which is focused on quality enhancement, sector-wide learning and collaboration within the regulatory model, achieved through periodic touchpoints with providers. These touchpoints, conducted in collaboration with the sector, provide public up-to-date information on the quality arrangements of higher education providers. They assure funder/regulators that baseline standards are being met, while also identifying areas where providers can improve beyond the baseline and deliver excellent provision. The sector-wide enhancement programme delivered by QAA alongside the touchpoints acts as a rising tide that lifts all boats.
Student partnership strengthens quality judgements
Finally, central to the success of any quality system is the inclusion of students as partners in the assurance, assessment and enhancement of quality. The UK is rightly viewed as a global leader in this respect, with QAA itself recently having been recognized as being “exemplary” in student involvement. It was in Scotland that students were first included as full members of review teams, a practice which was quickly rolled out across the other UK nations and replicated internationally. This commitment to embedding the student voice within all activity to assess and enhance the quality of higher education remains steadfast across the devolved nations and in internal quality assurance within English providers. The inclusion of students in external quality assessment activity in England has been less consistent.
Pioneering tertiary models provides examples of what works
Alongside these reflections from their quality approaches, the nations are also paving the way when it comes to tertiary. In England, with growing collaboration between FE colleges and HE providers and the introduction of the Lifelong Learning Entitlement (LLE) in the years to come, a tertiary approach will be vital to ensure students can access flexible and seamless transitions across the post-school system.
The Tertiary Quality Project in Scotland and the Commission for Tertiary Education and Research in Wales offer pioneering examples of how this can be implemented in practice, providing lessons for the English approach. As skills needs and developments such as artificial intelligence evolve, higher education must evolve with them. A tertiary approach is crucial in enabling an agile and seamless learning journey that meets these emerging challenges and opportunities.
QAA’s policy paper published today gives further detail on the learning from the devolved nations that might support policymakers to future-proof quality arrangements in England. These reflections build on QAA’s recommendations published in their ‘English quality system fit for the future’ briefing.
Realigning England’s commitment to a shared UK concept of quality is not about imposing uniformity – it is about recognizing how common approaches to quality can underpin cross-UK and international mobility, while respecting the spirit of devolution.
QAA is currently updating the UK Quality Code in partnership with the sector. To have your say, visit our website.