All bark, no bite?

May 16, 2013

The recent Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ draft guidance Alternative Providers: Specific Course Designation states on page 9: “The QAA safeguards academic standards and quality in UK universities and colleges, so that students have the best possible learning experience.” Unfortunately this statement is incorrect, for at least two reasons.

First, it is only academic staff, working within established professional values, mechanisms and practices, who can actually safeguard academic standards and quality.

Second, the Quality Assurance Agency itself does not have the necessary powers or sanctions. Under UK law, British universities remain answerable only to themselves for their academic programmes and qualifications. While the QAA can certainly draw attention to any case where it considers that standards or quality may be at risk, it cannot require an institution to change its programmes or qualifications.

We are aware of three qualifications to this statement.

First, where a private provider has obtained degree-awarding powers, identified risks to standards or quality could be grounds for the Privy Council’s declining to renew those powers on the advice of the secretary of state.

Second, where the offending institution receives cash from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, Hefce may withdraw the money, according to Policy for Addressing Unsatisfactory Quality in Institutions, a document first published in 2009. However, this policy has never been invoked. In any case, many institutions will soon be receiving little or even no Hefce funding. And the funding council’s vires for taking such action - and indeed action in the field of quality more generally - are questionable because the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act expressly excludes it from the scrutiny of academic standards.

Third, the UK Border Agency (and whatever replaces it) may withdraw the status of highly trusted sponsor in cases where the QAA advises that standards or quality may be at risk. It therefore appears that the only clear remedies that are available where a provider takes serious risks with quality or standards are those operated under the aegis of the home secretary.

Roger Brown
Professor of higher education policy
Liverpool Hope University

Geoffrey Alderman
Michael Gross professor of politics
University of Buckingham

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