Quality assessment must be more than a tick-box process

Hefce chief Madeleine Atkins on what a simpler, less burdensome QA system might look like

September 16, 2015
A green pencil beside ticked boxes
Source: iStock

The consultation on future approaches to quality assessment closes tomorrow in England and Northern Ireland (those in Wales have already submitted their views).  We’ve received a large number of responses, and held five consultation events with more than 250 people attending to discuss the proposals. We’ve been listening to sector bodies, government, and others with relevant expertise.

Our next task is a detailed analysis of the responses, but at our events we’ve heard broad support for the principles being proposed, and an appetite for a simpler, less burdensome system. We’ve been told that a future system must respect the autonomy of institutions, support diversity of mission, and encourage innovation in learning and teaching. And there has been constructive debate about the proposed emphasis on learning outcomes rather than “tick-box” institutional processes.

But what might this mean in practice? The consultation has a dual focus: on the quality of the student academic experience, and on the integrity of degree standards.

On the first, we are proposing that providers could determine their own priorities for learning and teaching within the specific context of their mission, types of provision, location, and characteristics of their student body. They would need to provide robust methods of determining “what works”, with evidenced plans for improvement. Student engagement would be a required element of these plans.

The funding bodies would review, and periodically examine in detail, assurances from the governing body and head of the institution that the plans were being implemented effectively. They would also provide an independent kitemark as recognition that the expectations of the quality assessment system were being met.

The second focus is a set of recommendations for the sector, where responsibility for degree standards, and the external examiner system which underpins it, clearly lies. The proposals – for better training of external examiners, for more calibration of marking through communities of subject peers, for a review of algorithms used to determine final degree classifications, and a clear written expression of academic output standards – reflect the funding bodies’ firm belief that developments of this kind are needed if the national and international standing of UK degrees is to be maintained and enhanced.

During the consultation period there has been much discussion about the proposal to end the routine cyclical review of baseline requirements for established providers where there is no evidence of serious quality problems. Some commentators have argued that this would represent the loss of external peer scrutiny; others have expressed anxiety that it would give the funding bodies too much power.

Fortunately, neither is intended to be the case. The proposals recognise the considerable independent expert and peer scrutiny to which providers are already subject through, for example, professional, statutory and regulatory bodies.

But in addition, they would require the strengthening of an institution’s own periodic course or subject reviews to ensure good representation from students, alumni and employers, and from national and international peers acting as critical friends – a role that is greatly valued in the sector. The existing external examining process would be strengthened. And where there was evidence of serious problems, an independent peer review process would be initiated.

Finally, there has also been much discussion in England about the relationship of the quality assessment proposals to the teaching excellence framework, which the government also wants to see based on external peer review. Everything we have heard over the summer has stressed the need for a single, coherent, outcomes-focused system.  We couldn’t agree more.

The quality assessment proposals could form the bedrock on which the TEF concept of excellence could be built. The plans required under the quality assessment proposals could serve in whole or part as the qualitative contextual statements that a TEF panel might need. Some of the appropriately benchmarked metrics that institutions and the funding bodies would use in these plans would meet the standard of “responsible metrics” (a concept transferred from the Wilsdon Committee’s 2015 report on the use of metrics in the REF) which should also be required in a TEF. 

The quality assessment proposals are designed to operate at the level of the institution, and it seems likely that at least the first iteration of the TEF would need to do the same – even if subsequent TEFs adopted a subject focus. But we know that we have more to do to design the details of this new single system, which is why we are looking forward to reading your responses to the consultation, and continuing to engage in dialogue with all parts of the sector.

Madeleine Atkins is chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

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Reader's comments (1)

Great to see that the concept of subject communities 'owning' their own standards and the need for a calibration process for external examiners is still central to the proposals as this is the only way of establishing comparable acdemic standards