We, the Higher Education Funding Council for England, published our revised operating model for quality assessment just before Easter.
We have a longstanding and demonstrable commitment to institutional autonomy. We’re also well-practised at balancing burden and bureaucracy for institutions with our duty to safeguard the interests of students and the public.
But if a recent flurry of opinion pieces is to be taken at face value, you’d be forgiven for thinking that we’ve created an expensive, bureaucratic monster that infringes institutional autonomy. Is this really the case?
Let’s try to unpick some of this. If I had responsibility for quality in the fictitious but well-established University of Westford, what would I need to do? I think there are three areas to focus on.
A robust approach to internal periodic review
First, I’d need to make sure that the university’s internal periodic review process was working effectively and focusing on the things that matter to Westford students.
I’d want to check that the review process made good use of independent external or peer advice, was operated in partnership with Westford students, and used data and other evidence to identify areas for improvement in the student academic experience and student outcomes.
Westford students come from diverse backgrounds and our course portfolio is wide-ranging. So I’d be particularly keen to ensure that our approach to review was effective for our context rather than conforming to any generic sector-wide expectations.
Once I was satisfied that we had a robust approach to internal review, I’d need to submit a brief account of the methodology we use to be verified by Hefce. I’d be able to reassure my colleagues that this was a one-off, light-touch transition mechanism that would allow us to demonstrate the credible approach used at Westford.
I’d also be wondering whether this document, and the evidence of innovation in learning and teaching that our periodic review process generates, might also be an important element for our institutional submission to the teaching excellence framework.
I think I’d also spot an opportunity here to reflect on the university’s approach to quality management more broadly. In particular, I’d want to reduce the effort required of academic staff on the generation of audit trails and evidence for quality reviews. My challenge to colleagues would be: what kind of approach to quality management should a mature institution such as Westford take?
Continuous improvement through the annual provider review
Second, I’d want to think about the implications for Westford of the new annual provider review process.
I’d be able to see that this process pulls together existing data and information and that most of the effort to conduct the annual review will fall, as now, on Hefce rather than on Westford. The university would only be expected to take action if there was evidence of a serious problem.
So I’d want to make sure that we understood the picture of Westford that will be created when Hefce puts together all of this information and data.
The sorts of questions I’d ask include: how do we perform against benchmark on the key indicators for student progression, completion and satisfaction? Do we routinely reflect on this data and take action as necessary to improve? Are we confident that the views of Westford students are understood and taken into account?
The university has well-established processes in these areas, but we’ll want to revisit these to make sure that they will work effectively in the new quality assessment system.
And, although the progression and achievement of Westford students and their views expressed through the National Student Survey give us confidence that we’re doing a good job, we know that, like much of the rest of the sector, the data tells us that there are differential degree outcomes for Westford students from different backgrounds. We know that we need to do something about this.
Ensuring effective governance to improve the quality of the student academic experience
Third, I’d want to think about the academic governance arrangements at Westford.
Our governing body takes its responsibilities very seriously, and recognises that the higher education code of governance requires it to work with the university’s senate to ensure that academic governance is effective.
The senate already provides an annual report on its work and the governing body is well-sighted on institutional risks. But I would want to make sure that the governing body is satisfied that the full range of academic risk is visible and that it is receiving the data and information it needs to test the approach taken by the senate and the executive.
I would also expect members to want to discuss the basis on which the governing body will make the new annual assurances required by Hefce about the quality of the academic experience and student outcomes.
I’m confident that members will understand that their role here is to receive reports and challenge assurances from within the institution, rather than to be drawn into quality management activities.
I think the governing body will also find it helpful to receive benchmarked data on Westford’s performance on, for example student non-progression, differential degree outcomes, NSS outcomes, in the annual risk letter that we receive from Hefce at the end of the annual accountability process.
Five-yearly assurance review: a low-burden approach
One other thing I’d be checking is: when is Westford due for its five-yearly Hefce assurance review visit? Our previous experience of this visit is that it draws on information we have already provided to Hefce to underpin discussions with members of our governing body and executive about the basis on which the annual assurances have been provided.
I’d be keen to understand better how this low-burden approach will be extended to meet the needs of the new quality assessment arrangements. I’d also be volunteering Westford to be involved in pilot activity to help shape the approach to ensure that the right information and expertise is used in this visit.
Westford sounds like a great place to study and work. It’s a mature and confident institution that exercises its autonomy in a self-determined way. It recognises that it carries responsibility for evaluating and improving the quality of the student academic experience and student outcomes and understands the appropriate role for the governing body in achieving this.
It does all of these things already, so with continued evidence that Westford is operating effectively and without serious problems, the burden of the revised quality assessment approach will be very small.
And the new operating model frees Westford to develop mature internal quality management approaches that are appropriate for its own particular organisational context.
Colleagues are pleased that Westford will no longer need to prepare for higher education reviews. This represents a substantial time and cost saving, and provides us with an opportunity to focus resource and effort on the things that matter to Westford students.
Westford can also see the potential to make significant inroads into cost savings more broadly, particularly in terms of the academic staff time currently devoted to quality management activities, without compromising on rigour and while maintaining a clear and unwavering focus on improving the quality of the student academic experience and student outcomes. Can you?
So, burden and bureaucracy? Infringement of institutional autonomy? Not at all. Rather, it’s an opportunity to fully exercise institutional autonomy to deliver the things that matter to students.
Susan Lapworth is director of regulation and assurance at the Higher Education Funding Council for England.