Fighting talk from OfS is alarming universities

New Office for Students guidance hints at a more adversarial approach to sector that most wish to avoid, says Gill Evans

February 7, 2018
Knights seeking cover from arrows behind shields
Source: Alamy

For many year, universities identified the Quality Assurance Agency as an enemy. 

In evidence to a parliamentary select committee in 1999 Alec Broers, then vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge, complained about his institution being put “through the mill as though we were some third-rank university which is teaching shoddy degrees to shoddy people”. He was particularly annoyed about the short-lived teaching quality assessment scheme, of which the the present teaching excellence framework looks like being a mutant reincarnation.

The QAA revised its approach in the light of the outcry over the TQA and set about providing a handy infrastructure for universities to use to remind themselves what made for good practice, such basic common-sense measures as making sure that students are told what is expected of them and double-marking examination papers. The result, a collaborative endeavour with the sector, was first the code of practice and now the quality code.

Now universities are identifying a new enemy: the Office for Students. Cambridge’s indignation about this new body was clear when it insisted in its recent response to the body’s regulatory consultation that if the OfS was going to play “regulator”, it would have to establish its own “credibility” in the sector. 

So how is it doing? In contrast with the extensive information available on the developing UKRI website, the OfS has put up only a minimal temporary website, carrying a brief “Who we are and what we do” statement. There are a few items of hard news.

Providers will find out how to join the new register on 28 February when “guidance” will be published. Research is being commissioned to “examine student perceptions of value for money”, because student “value for money” is to be one of the things on the OfS’ list of planned “achievements”.

The website has announced that the Higher Education Statistics Agency, which has been collecting information on behalf of all the UK funding councils since 1993, is being adopted as the “designated information body” after an extensive but rather time-wasting consultation. There were, it seems, no other candidates for the new England-only and all-providers task, in response to a Department for Education “expressions of interest” invitation.

The QAA is also announced as the only suitable candidate, this time for the new “assessing higher education” designated body, which is to assess “the quality of, and the standards applied to, higher education” and to advise the OfS on the “granting, variation or revocation of degree awarding powers”.

Here’s the rub. In the OfS’ letter to the secretary of state recommending its designation, there lurks a “challenge”. The QAA is to learn new ways. It is required to “understand the philosophical approach that underpins the OfS’s regulatory framework and to ensure that the design and operation of quality assessment activities is coherent with this”.

No word has yet appeared describing or even outlining this “philosophical approach”.

But it is apparently also a “shift”, and the QAA “will need to address the implications of this shift at a strategic level” in order to “ensure that it is able to lead the organisation through changed thinking and working practices”.

There are, however, some hints of what this might mean that demand to be taken out of an obscure paragraph in a letter and given wider exposure.

The QAA explains that “we recruit experienced higher education professionals and students to conduct our reviews. We do this so that people who know and understand higher education are the ones who check the standards and quality.

The new designated body is told to “ensure that the review process is designed and supported by individuals with appropriate regulatory and/or investigatory skills rather than relying solely on peer review”. What sort of non-academic sleuths are envisaged?

The QAA has never before been a regulator. It has been funded by its subscribing universities as well as by contracts from the UK funding councils to “work with” the higher education sector in designing the good practice guidelines in the quality code and to “maintain it on their behalf”.

In its new incarnation, it is to become a regulator and “ensure that an appropriate balance is found between its historically close relationship with the sector and successfully adopting the regulatory role required of a designated body”.

The QAA announced its selection as the designated body without comment, but there is clearly going to have to be some discussion about that OfS “philosophy” before it moves to its new role.

Let’s hope for the best. Socrates always tested his students by throwing them a proposition to disembowel.

Gill R. Evans is emeritus professor of medieval theology and intellectual history at the University of Cambridge.

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