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Aligning quality for all the world to see

  • 27 June 2024
  • By Alastair Delaney
  • This blog was kindly authored by Alastair Delaney, Deputy Chief Executive at QAA.
  • On Tuesday 16 July from 10am to 11am, HEPI and Unite Students will host a webinar to discuss the 2024 Unite Students’ Applicant Index: you can sign up here.

The Quality Assurance Agency has today published the new edition of the UK Quality Code. The previous edition was published in 2018.

The Quality Code is a key reference point for the HE sector. It articulates the principles of UK higher education for securing academic standards and assuring and enhancing quality.

This new edition looks very different from the 2018 iteration, which was produced under very different conditions to address very different sectoral contexts. For a start, it’s a significantly more substantial document, encompassing much more detail and depth than its immediate predecessor. Its emphases are also somewhat changed.

The 2018 edition, for example, included among its nine core practices – designed to underpin its expectations for quality – a brief reference to approaches whereby “the provider actively engages students, individually and collectively, in the quality of their educational experience”. By contrast, the 2024 edition rather more expansively details half a dozen key practices designed to support the principle that “providers take deliberate steps to engage students as active partners in assuring and enhancing the quality of the student learning experience”, that “engagement happens individually and collectively to influence all levels of study and decision making” and that “enhancements identified through student engagement activities are implemented, where appropriate, and communicated to staff and students”.

Just as the importance of student engagement has returned to the fore over the past six years, so has the value of processes of cyclical review. The earlier iteration (without much further elaboration) commended as “common practice” mechanisms through which “the provider reviews its Core practices for quality regularly and uses the outcomes to drive improvement and enhancement.” Without becoming overly wordy, our new edition offers rather more detail and emphasis on this point, presenting seven key practices developed to promote the principle that “providers regularly monitor and review their provision to secure academic standards and enhance quality ” and the accompanying expectation that “deliberate steps are taken to engage and involve students, staff and external expertise in monitoring and evaluation activity”.

Overall, the 2024 Quality Code is intended to represent a key set of reference points developed and owned by the sector itself. The maintenance of academic standards and the enhancement of the quality of the learning experience have never, after all, been things which could or should operate in isolation. These activities require collaboration between educators, providers, professional bodies and sector agencies (both domestically and internationally) to share best practices and to reach agreement on the levels at which standards should be pitched.

The new Code is the product of an extensive process of engagement and consultation, one which brought together and sought to harmonise the core perspectives of UK stakeholders, while aligning those values with internationally recognised principles.

Built on a shared understanding of approaches to academic quality and standards across the UK sector, it enables providers to evaluate their policies and practices with reference to sector-agreed principles and has at the same time been mapped to key international reference points, most notably the European Standards and Guidelines (ESG).

As with the ownership and provenance of the UK Quality Code, the ESG is itself owned by the sector stakeholders of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA). Its development was led by the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA). It was formally adopted by Ministers responsible for higher education in nations within the EHEA in 2005, and a revised edition was agreed and published in 2015.

Like the new UK Code, its guidelines emphasise the importance of the active participation of students in the processes of the design, development, practice, assurance and enhancement of the learner experience. They also similarly advise that providers undergo external quality assurance review processes on a regular basis.

And like the new edition of the Quality Code – which reflects the conviction that quality processes should be deployed to support processes of continual enhancement above baseline expectations – the European guidelines emphasise that “at the heart of all quality assurance activities are the twin purposes of accountability and enhancement”.

Its alignment with the ESG means that UK providers undergoing external quality reviews based on the principles encompassed by the Code are simultaneously reviewed against both UK and European standards without the need to duplicate compliance and mapping activities.

This alignment also facilitates the international recognition of UK qualifications and thus supports the external mobility of students and graduates, opening up opportunities for them to study and work abroad. 

Perhaps most crucially, it underpins the consistency of practice across the UK, reinforcing the identity, integrity and reputation of the quality of the country’s HE sector on a global level, to prospective international students as well as to overseas quality agencies and governments.

Indeed, views as to the importance of this alignment were raised only last month, during the House of Lords Grand Committee debate on the Industry and Regulators Committee report on the Office for Students, by figures as politically diverse as Labour’s Baroness Taylor of Bolton, the Liberal Democrats’ Baron Clement-Jones, and the Conservatives’ Baron Norton of Louth.

This alignment promotes international confidence in the coherent quality of UK higher education and helps to prevent any confusion of messaging which might be caused by divergences between the UK nations’ approaches to educational policy and regulatory regimes. It demonstrates and declares, through a single clear and congruous vision, what high-quality UK HE recognises itself to be.

In this way, it both assures and ensures that students should enjoy an equally high-quality experience in whichever UK nation they choose to study, or when accessing UK higher education delivered virtually or transnationally overseas.

The UK Quality Code’s alignment with European Standards thereby strengthens the reputation of the sector by assuring international partners that institutions reviewed against the UK Quality Code are being measured against rigorous international expectations and can be trusted to deliver a consistently high-quality student experience.

That trust is built upon an understanding of the impartiality of the custodians of the principles of quality assurance and enhancement – the confidence that the judgments of those agencies are not directly determined by, for instance, political or commercial interests, that (in the words of the ESG) “agencies should be independent [and] should have full responsibility for their operations and the outcomes of those operations without third party influence”.

We at QAA of course believe that this trust is essential to the value, prestige and success of the UK’s higher education sector not only in our own nations but across the entire world.

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