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.