Our plans for quality assessment have been misunderstood

Hefce's new standards regime will enable universities to focus on what matters to students, says Susan Lapworth

April 12, 2016
Quality under magnifying glass

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.

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Reader's comments (5)

This is so patronising that reading it makes my teeth hurt, and it does nothing to address the concerns raised in the flurry of opinion pieces referenced at the start of this piece. Many of those articles reference the fact that HEFCE does not appear to know what it is doing, a concern not addressed by this article, which serves to underline its title: Our plans for quality assessment have been misunderstood (by us). HEFCE's proposals remain short on detail and specifics, and take HEFCE beyond their current legal remit. It still isn't clear why an annual and five year review is less burdensome than the current six-year cycle, nor why the sector would welcome (a) a shift from comparability at threshold level to the proposed standardised classification algorithms and an external examiner inspectorate; (b) the transfer of accountability for academic oversight from a University's Academic Senate to its governing (non-Academic) Council; (c) assurance arrangements outsourced piecemeal (particularly if the quality of service provided by the private assurance bodies is as poor as those involved in HEFCE's consultation). The changes will ensure that HEFCE has a purpose, protecting it against government cuts, and will push universities to focus on what HEFCE wants. This is not about what matters to students, employers, or the public.
Dear Susan, we no longer trust. Spokespeople who parrot 'robust' The word always flies at the start of those lies. Slaves like you always tell, as they must. Dear Susan, why can't you engage With the rage (yes, we know how to rage) When Hefce pretends It is run by our friends? Come off it, you're all government slaves. To parrot in management speak Is the sign of the morally weak Treat scholars like dirt Stab their backs, it won't hurt. You're the manager, I'm just a geek.
It’s taken me a long time to comment on this article, because (like Brian Jones) I found the tone so patronising that it almost beggared belief. However, having finally calmed down, I want to ask Susan Lapworth: what does she think those of us with responsibility for quality do with our time at the moment? As a former Academic Registrar, you’d think she’d have a clearer idea of what it involves. Frankly, anyone with responsibility for quality who isn’t undertaking the activities described isn’t doing the job. Having done those activities professionally for six years, preparation for Higher Education Review is pretty straightforward. The process could have been less burdensome, no doubt, although as Gordon McKenzie has pointed out, it would have been easy enough to ask QAA to create a less burdensome process (which they proposed previously, but HEFCE opposed). Certainly I don’t recognise the “substantial time and cost saving” described. The main difference seems to be that instead of having our processes reviewed once every six years by a group of trained professionals who understand what they’re looking it, we have them reviewed once every five years as part of our assurance review, by people with limited understanding of quality in HE. As it happens, my institution works hard to assure its Board about the management of quality and standards, and always has, but it’s not easy with a group of highly intelligent and engaged Governors who have no background in this area. Giving them greater responsibility is not going to make this task easier. We won’t reduce the amount of academic staff time currently devoted to quality management activities, because we only ask them to do what’s necessary. We have never asked colleagues to do anything “because QAA wants it”; if Westford has, maybe it should have reviewed its quality processes some years ago. The quality management duties of academic staff all relate to robust standards, and the enhancement of the quality of the student experience. Nothing else. But even so, it’s fantastic that we’re going to be given an “opportunity to fully exercise institutional autonomy”. As discussed in your original research piece for this review of quality assessment ('Approaches to regulation in other UK sectors'), the financial sector enjoyed that opportunity too; just ask Lehmann Brothers. How that is in the interest of students or the public… well, you tell me.
I can remember sitting on the floor of a scout hut, as one of a circle of cubs, listening to Arkela deliver the weekly message on 'correct' social behaviour in the community. The parallel tone between him and Susan Lapworth is, frankly, unhealthy. If her piece was not authorised before it went out it should have been; and if it was then ... well, God help us!!
Whether or not this new system will be less burdensome is very much up in the air at present - the proposals lack detail and, as Jon points out above, universities will need to continue to undertake much of the QAA proscribed practice regardless (the need to double mark work, operate appeals processes and monitor collaborative agreements isn't going away). What does concern me is the attempt to play down the impact on institutional autonomy. One thing the QAA has consistently done is maintain comparable standards at threshold level, while permitting institutions to otherwise set standards in the context of their own awards (what you needed to do, as a minimum, to pass a degree is the same across the sector, but some institutions can set higher hurdles etc). These HEFCE proposals represent an enormous shift away from that, and for HEFCE to suggest otherwise is either disingenuous or worryingly ignorant. The proposals are to calibrate marking across institutions, set standardised degree algorithms and introduce centralised training for external examiners. These changes are fundamental, cut to the core of academic standards and have huge implications for the way universities operate as autonomous institutions and in terms of both academic regulations and student registration processes (which each come with some fairly hefty costs attached).