UK universities have come together to maintain quality standards during this crisis

Providing hardship funding to buy laptops and being flexible with evaluations are among the best practices the QAA has observed, writes Vicki Stott

April 12, 2020
Quality control guarantee
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Students of 2020 are being asked to show extraordinary resilience, flexibility and self-discipline as the world battles the Covid-19 outbreak. Through no fault of their own and amid real uncertainty, they find themselves having to quickly adapt to a new way of working. Universities too have adapted their practices to enable students to keep learning, but these new practices have many demands to fulfil.

They must work around staff and student sickness, availability of external examiners and engagement of governing bodies. They must satisfy the needs of students and their support networks for clarity and reassurance, and fulfil employers’ need for a properly assessed and qualified workforce. They must reassure governments that the sector is both contributing to the national effort to control the virus, and pulling together to protect the quality and reputation of UK degrees. 

To help, the UK’s Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) has collated some of the best practices adopted in response to the Covid-19 health crisis and amplified how universities are working to maintain quality and standards during this time.

This work is there to support institutions, sharing what higher education providers across the sector have told us is working for them. It covers four areas: academic standards and students’ learning experience; practice and lab-based work; accelerated degrees; and work-based learning. More will follow in the coming months, but these issues are the most pressing concerns we’ve heard from students, universities and governments.

Universities have moved with speed, razor-sharp focus and innovation to provide alternatives to physical teaching and assessment. Many have now resolved the problems of final year assessment to secure graduations. Professional bodies have been engaged and many have adapted their requirements to allow degrees to carry professional accreditation. Most institutions have also now decided how to enable students to progress into the next year of their studies. 

One of the government’s pre-election concerns was a perception of “low value” degrees. Currently, this translates into a worry that institutions will alter degree algorithms to cope with new assessment methods and reflect the extraordinary circumstances of 2020 graduates. If there were a significant increase in the proportion of “good” degrees this year, that could prove problematic in future.

In our conversations with pro vice-chancellors, course leaders, heads of quality functions and external examiners, QAA has seen little evidence that institutions are considering this. Instead, universities have come together to define clear principles by which they will evaluate changes of practice. Individual institutions have applied these principles to their own situation, to decide how their students’ learning outcomes might be assessed without requiring changes to algorithms.

As one pv-c told us, there may be a difference in distribution of classifications in the “good” degrees, but there is unlikely to be an increase overall. If this turns out to be the case, then institutions will have demonstrated that they can work together to self-regulate effectively.

Students have been – quite understandably – anxious about how their own situation will be affected. The University of Exeter announced its “no detriment” approach to year end assessment and progression last week, leading the NUS to press for all institutions to adopt a similar benchmarking approach.

Other models are available: for example, more than one university will use reflective essays to progress from first to second year.  Real thought has been given to how to demonstrate that learning outcomes have been met – and if that is not possible this year, then how they can be trailed into future years without undue burden.

Students’ concerns are wider than merely exams and progression. Welfare provision, especially for mental welfare, is being maintained remotely. Many students who have remained on or near campus are receiving support with food, facilities and access to learning. We found one institution making hardship funding available for the purchase of laptops.

All institutions we’ve spoken to have thought about the additional needs of students who can’t return home for whatever reason, and students whose home environments are not conducive to study. Some are considering how degree certificates or transcripts could in some way be marked to indicate the exceptional circumstances students have had to contend with this year. This all speaks to students' resilience in achieving their qualifications, despite trying times.

What problems remain to be solved? Well, we don’t yet know how the global pandemic will affect recruitment and admissions. There is clear political unease about issuing unconditional offers at this point, and the reintroduction of student number controls may become the resolution for competition for UK students. It seems unlikely that overseas students will arrive in anything like the numbers the sector has become used to, even dependent upon. The financial impacts of the pandemic are likely to play out over several years.

What is clear is that the sector can change to meet these challenges, and many of these changes are innovative, exciting and likely to last. When we get back to “normal”, it is unlikely that normal will look as it did before.

Vicki Stott is the QAA’s executive director of operations.

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