Single watchdog is better than several

October 16, 2014

The announcement by the Higher Education Funding Council for England of a review of the arrangements for carrying out quality assessment (“Watchdog ‘no match’ for a sector in flux”, News, 9 October) raises a number of issues that the sector would do well to ponder.

If there is one thing that institutions justifiably complain about, it is having to deal with a raft of separate regulatory agencies. It is hard to see how taking responsibility for quality assessment away from the Quality Assurance Agency, if this happens, and giving it to another body will improve matters, especially if the QAA is left with other regulatory functions such as advising the government on applications for degree-awarding powers and university title, working for UK Visas and Immigration and so on.

In any case, quality assessment is only a part of quality assurance. While the funding councils have a duty under the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 to secure the provision of the assessment of the quality of teaching and learning that they fund, the arrangements for the maintenance of academic standards remain with the institutions. When the QAA was formed in 1997 this distinction was fudged, so that audit/institutional review scrutinises both quality and standards. If assessment is taken away from the QAA, it is not clear how this will be handled. But the funding councils have no locus over the academic standards that institutions set for their awards.

Third, there is a timing issue. Post the general election, most people are expecting legislation to update the present inefficient and outmoded regulatory framework. Hefce’s announcement and plan would appear to pre-empt this. Yet it is hard to imagine that it would have been made without the agreement of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. It would be helpful to know just what is going on here.

None of this is to deny the potential benefits of greater selectivity, and even greater economy, in quality assurance, even if the basis, in an increasingly competitive market, may be hard to find (it certainly does not lie along the risk road). But if such is desired, I imagine that most institutions would prefer it to be operated by a single, independent agency that is able to take a holistic view of their activities, rather than have to produce yet another set of books for yet another passing regulator.

Roger Brown
Emeritus professor of higher education policy, Liverpool Hope University and former chief executive, Higher Education Quality Council

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