Consultation on QA Arrangements

In case you missed it last week, HEFCE have now published their consultation into arrangement for quality assurance in higher education.

Much of what appears in the document was already trailed, perhaps what is most interesting is the reaction seen across the sector since publication.

The key themes as described by HEFCE are:

  • A shift from process-driven assurance to analysis of student academic outcomes. A number of respondents to the first phase of the review wished to see this shift. It builds on existing institutional activity to drive excellence and innovation in learning and teaching in the context of an institution’s own mission, location and modes of delivery, and the nature of their student body.
  • Strengthening the existing external examining system to protect the integrity of academic standards. There was strong support in the first phase of the review for the external examining system, but recognition of the need for further modernisation and professionalisation.
  • An enhanced role for universities’ and colleges’ own assurance systems. Governing bodies would confirm that their senates or academic boards were reviewing the quality of their students’ academic experience and (for institutions with degree awarding powers) academic output standards, and provide assurance that there were appropriate action plans in place where necessary

Reading through the document, then for me, three theme become of increasing importance:

  • the increasing role of university governance
  • the need for internal data to provie assurance
  • the development of a teaching excellence framework.

One organisation who don’t get a mention at all in the document is QAA. Their response included:

‘QAA can bring extensive expertise to this debate. We will be offering ideas to shape a genuinely risk-based, proportionate approach, tailored to the track record and circumstances of each individual college or university; an approach that is truly UK-wide and underpins the reputation of UK higher education internationally”

In a speech earlier in the week by the Chief Exec of QAA, Anthony McClaren, their view was made a little more forcefully:

There are also a number of fundamental principles missing from what is being proposed.

The value of external cyclical review and the critical role it has in protecting the interests of our students, supporting providers developmentally through enhancement, providing public assurance, complying with European standards and safeguarding the global reputation of the sector. And not, as suggested in the consultation, merely a ‘repeated retesting against baseline requirements’.

Nor does it properly recognise the importance of a coherent system with a single independent quality assurance body, a single body which avoids fragmentation and weakening of the system, and enables a level playing field covering not only publicly funded universities and colleges, but also alternative providers.

Also, the retention of a UK-wide system and, critically, a single UK-wide framework as we have today, which is respected and trusted globally.

And a system which continues to meet fully now – not as an aspiration for the future – both European and wider international expectations.

And with international quality assurance activities which continue to support UK providers both in recruiting international students to this country and with their transnational education activities overseas.

QAA, working with the UK sector, is known, trusted and respected round the world as the safeguarder of quality and standards in UK higher education. Given the international objectives of the sector and also our government’s export ambitions, our work will become even more crucial in the future.

We will be responding to this consultation.


Million+ responded to the consultation with a piece by it’s Chair, our VC Prof Michael Gunn:


The consultation raises a number of complex issues and universities will wish to carefully consider their responses. However if the end result is that England loses an independent external quality assurance system there would be concerns about the impact on the reputation of UK higher education both within the UK but also overseas.

Universities UK responded with:

Effective quality assessment will continue to play a central role in securing our global reputation and providing assurances to students, the government, and the public more widely. It is important that this remains fit for purpose for the whole of the United Kingdom and in a significantly changed higher education environment, adapting to increasing diversity in students and institutions. The proposals set out by the English, Welsh and Northern Irish funding bodies pick up this challenge, setting out clear proposals for reform

In response to the various voices making themselves hear, and in particular the fact that the original document does seem to have a few bits missing, then HEFCE provided a blog article entitled “No consultation document survives first contact with its stakeholders (without the need for further elaboration)”.

Here HEFCE say:

The consultation document’s first formal engagement with the world has revealed the need for further elaboration and explanation, but the proposals themselves are holding up.  And the purpose of the consultation is to set out proposals and then to gather and test responses.  And then to think some more

Clearly this is going to be a major piece of work through the summer, not just for HEFCE, but for all relevant stakeholders.

Areas that we might want to think about are how we involve governance more centrally in assuring standards, which links to how we provide information to allow such judgments to be made.

Finally this week the new universities minister, Jo Johnson, announced  plans to create a Teaching Excellence Framework. Clearly this is links to the HEFCE consultation, and will be the next challenge for us to face. Hopefully we won’t just be replacing one review of quality that focused on process rather than outcomes,  with another for teaching that focuses on process.





Jo Johnson – First Speech

Our new universities minister has broken cover and delivered his first speech about higher education, entitled “Teaching at the Heart of the System” to UUK this week.

Here’s the edited highlights:

On helping students to make informed choices:

we can now start to assess the employment and earnings returns to education by matching Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and Department for Education (DfE) education data with HMRC employment and income data and Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) benefits data.

We will be able to see which institutions and subjects provide the greatest financial benefits to students, and reflect this back to potential applicants.

On value for money:

While independent learning is vital, universities must get used to providing clearer information about how many hours students will spend in lectures, seminars and tutorials, and who will deliver the teaching.

Indeed the Competition and Markets Authority have advised higher education providers that information should be available to prospective students to meet the requirements of consumer law.

I’ve been rewriting module handbook templates recently for one of our faculties, with a focus on managing student expectations, and clealry identifying how we deliver courses, how much independent learning is expected, and crucially, what we expect our students to do through independent study.

On employability:

Last year’s CBI/Pearson Education and Skills survey suggested that 47% of employers felt universities should do more to help students become job-ready.

Government, business and the university sector need to come together to address this mismatch between supply and demand in the graduate labour market.

Businesses should not just be seen as customers of universities, recruiting the graduates they educate or buying research expertise, but as active partners.

Although this seems to reinforce the narrative that universities are just in the business of providing work ready employees, we do recognise the importance of developing employability skills, hence our recent Learning and Teaching Conference that focused on this very topic.

The big announcement though is this one:

There must be recognition of excellent teaching – and clear incentives to make ‘good’ teaching even better.

Some rebalancing of the pull between teaching and research is undoubtedly required.

It is striking that while we have a set of measures to reward high quality research, backed by substantial funding (the Research Excellence Framework), there is nothing equivalent to drive up standards in teaching.

That is why my priority as Universities Minister will be to make sure students get the teaching they deserve and employers get graduates with the skills they need by introducing the Teaching Excellence Framework we promised in our manifesto.

While no one would argue that we shouldn’t have excellent teaching, the difficulty here will be in finding a way of assessing excellence without becoming overly prescriptive or burdensome (REF anyone?), although the minister does say that “any external review must be proportionate and light touch, not big, bossy and bureaucratic”. Interestingly, there is a hint of a future role for QAA in developing the framework (just as they may be losing the remit of institutional quality assurance).

On good degrees, Johnson notes the rise in the number of 1sts and 2(i)s being awarded, saying:

To the extent this expansion in the number of firsts and 2:1s is to do with rising levels of attainment and hard work, I applaud it.

But I suspect I am not alone in worrying that less benign forces are at work with the potential to damage the UK higher education brand.

On the face of it, the facts are certainly startling.

There has been a 300% increase in the percentage of firsts since the 1990s

Maybe the less benign forces come from the impact of league tables and the need to succeed in these to maintain institutional success? Alternativley, maybe universities have recognised how they can improve student attainment and success through the right kinds of interventions?

The proposed Teaching Excellence Framework will be expected to tackle degree classification inflation ( assuming that this does of course exist)

So far the speech has been cautious welcomed (TEF will be the biggest concern) with UUK saying:

Providing a high-quality, world-leading experience for all students is central to what our universities do, and they are always seeking to improve what they offer to students. We will be considering carefully how a new Teaching Excellence Framework can best add value to all students, whatever their choice of subject or university, and whatever their background and aspirations. The challenge is how to construct a single Framework that can effectively respond to that tremendous diversity. Universities UK will be contributing to the consultation process in the coming months

And from million+:

Professor Michael Gunn, chair of the university think-tank million+ and Vice-Chancellor of Staffordshire University said:

“Universities are engaged in high quality teaching and research but too often teaching has played second fiddle in discussions about the value and contribution of higher education to society and the economy.

“We warmly welcome Jo Johnson’s recognition that the student body is talented and diverse in background, age, mode of study and pre-entry qualifications.

“His commitment to work with employers to highlight shared responsibilities for graduate employability also opens up the potential to improve recruitment practices in ways that would benefit many students.

“The Minster has undoubtedly set a number of challenges and we welcome his commitment to consult widely and the opportunity to explore ways to value the excellent teaching and support for learning in universities.”

There will be a Green Paper in the autumn, so something else (as well as the HEFCE consultation on QA) for policy wonks to get excited about.


Tips for Graduation

Every year, at around this time, we’ll see articles for students on what to expect at graduation, and how to get through the day.Our own university Facebook feed has promoted this blog by one of our students Queenie Goredema who rightly focuses on outfit and makeup.

Previously we shared with students 49 thoughts that everyone has at graduation. Some of these are a bit sweary.


What we never see is the rules and guidance for staff, so here are some pointers.

Academic Dress

This is the only time of the year that you will wear robes. However, unlike your graduating students, you must wear with studied nonchalance – oh this old thing, I just threw it on. And really, that is how it should look. Graduands want to look perfect. Staff need to be so other worldly that the hood can be worn in a more “casual” manner. But never on the head.

This is an opportunity to check out the robes and hence academic background of your colleagues. The rules here are easy. Simple robes represent old and highly respected universities. The newer the institution, the gaudier the robes. Robes with significant amounts of embroidery were rarely awarded for academic success. Robes with gold embroidery usually represent management in private sector or overseas providers.

Under the Robes

Having reinforced the stereotype of what robes look like, and how to wear them, then we must take a deep breath and look at what goes beneath.

No matter what the standard wardrobe during the teaching year might be, this is a day when for men a tie really is needed. This is because it will hide where the hood attaches to the shirt. Ties should not match robe colours.

Again for men, suits are expected. This is because in midsummer, a woolen jacket, topped off with a gown and hood (possibly fur lined) is ideal, particularly under the hot lights on stage.

For women, again smart business wear. And safety pins to attach that hood.

For either gender, skirts or kilts are a minefield. Possibly cooling on a hot summer day. Potentially disturbing to the audience  if too short and you are sitting on the front row of the stage.

The Procession

The families of graduands will take this opportunity to video and take photographs of you. Try to look as if this is something you do every day (and for some people next week there could be 10 ceremonies to attend). Look as though you are having a deep academic conversation with whomever you are walking with. Keep your voice down though – nobody wants their parents’ video memories of graduation to have recorded your comments on  the snacks available before the ceremony

The Speeches

Look interested. You may have heard the same speech several times for the last however many years. Remember to laugh at the joke. Not too heartily.

Speeches by recipients of honorary doctorates should be attended to carefully. This might give you an insight into their possible benefit to the institution in future. Although you will probably never hear of them again.

Presentation of Students to the Chancellor or Vice Chancellor

Keep clapping. And again, keep clapping. Look delighted. Do not express surprise to your neighbour when someone who failed your first year appears. Do not mutter under your breath “plagiairist”, appeal”, “complaint” as the more challenging students cross the stage.

Shoes have become a major part of the graduation wardrobe for students, so you might be expected to notice. Don’t bother, just hope no one falls over.

Cheer raucously when a student kisses the VC or high fives them. Follow this with mentally arranging your next meeting with HR.

Post Ceremony

Keep your robes on. You may now have lost several kilos in fluid, but you are now a prop for photographs. Here, if you have a degree from a lesser institution, with those gaudy robes, then you will be a prime candidate to appear in photographs for overseas students whom you are not sure that you have taught. But at least you look pretty.

If you can gatecrash the senior staff reception, then this is the place for the best snacks. Make sure you engage a visitor in deep conversation as soon as you can. It’s much harder to be thrown out when you are looking busy. Leaving the reception clutching a couple of bottles of stolen bubbly doesn’t go down well. Hide it under your robes.

Remember, this is a day for your students, so enjoy, and remember that no one expects you to be reading your email or having work related discussions with managers. Enjoy it. Tomorrow it’s back to normal.