Amid government plans to introduce greater competition between private higher education providers and public universities, the announcement by the Higher Education Funding Council for England of a new risk-based inspection system is a worrying proposal.
Hefce plans to break up elements of the current contracts with the Quality Assurance Agency and put these out for tender, and is said to have employed BDO as consultants in the procurement process, approaching firms including Tribal, Capita and Serco to explore whether they could bid.
Maintaining consistent high quality of the delivery of higher education is of vital importance to the UK. It is because British institutions offering their own degrees are universally recognised as having to demonstrate and sustain excellent quality that they are viewed as the gold standard.
Other governments throughout the world respect the work of the QAA and envy the system that we have always delivered. The QAA is independent of government and of the higher education providers themselves, and acts in the public interest for the benefit of students. This independence is a requirement for many of the agreements that UK higher education has with the regulatory bodies of many other countries and is part of the system of mutual recognition.
The QAA was established in 1997 and has sought to enhance the quality and secure the standards of UK higher education wherever delivered in order to maintain public confidence. It has successfully provided leadership, through knowledge and resources, in assuring and enhancing the quality of higher education within the UK and internationally. Critics argue that, while the QAA includes representatives of institutions and students on its board, commercial companies cannot maintain the same relationships with the sector.
With a consultation also having been conducted into a higher education Green Paper, it was assumed that Hefce would work with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to present a unified approach on quality. However, following the announcement that Hefce is set to tender parcels of the work currently contracted to the QAA, there are more questions than answers. The minster, Jo Johnson, has said that he recognises the need for quality assurance to be carried out by an independent experienced body. The BIS select committee report published on 29 February states the same.
There are questions about how the benefits resulting from the independence of some functions can be retained within the proposed new institutional structure proposed in the Green Paper. In particular, the government cites the vital importance of the role of the independent QAA in providing the kitemark of quality that underpins the sector’s international competitiveness.
BIS received more than 600 responses to the higher education Green Paper consultation. It is expected that a response will be presented in late May, possibly in the form of a White Paper. It is therefore of concern that Hefce should go ahead with its tendering exercise to split up QAA activities before this happens; in particular, in light of the comments by the minister and in the BIS committee report, that organisations with no experience in these fields are being invited to tender.
This is a massive gamble. Existing contracts with the QAA terminate at the end of July 2016. This creates a high degree of uncertainty for QAA staff and for international quality agencies worldwide, who are already questioning whether they will still be able to rely on the UK standards in future.
No regulatory system is ever perfect or matches all of the interests of a diverse group of stakeholders. However, the QAA has demonstrated that it can offer a comprehensive and valued service that has enhanced the reputation of British higher education. The answer is not to gamble away our future by breaking it up. It is only those universities and bodies with vested interests who see this as the way forward.
Instead, we should build on the experience and excellence that the QAA has demonstrated and extend and enhance the value and reach of its services within and beyond UK higher education. The QAA can certainly move further towards a full, risk-based system of assessment and monitoring. It can serve to act as both a mentor and auditor, which could accelerate the acquisition of degree-awarding powers for individual universities. The new teaching excellence framework could be administered by the QAA alongside the higher education review.
To use a gambling metaphor, when you have a good hand, like the QAA, you have certainly got to hold on to it to win the game. Folding would result in certain loss. We cannot walk away from our global reputation and should certainly run from impulsive action to give up what we have.
Aldwyn Cooper is vice-chancellor of Regent's University London and chair of the Independent Universities Group.