Who is leading the call for QAA review?

October 30, 2014

The Higher Education Funding Council for England’s announcement on 7 October of a “quality assessment” consultation came as quite a surprise.

Hefce says this is to take place in conjunction with the other UK funding bodies. It is puzzling that no corresponding announcement was to be seen on the website of the Scottish Funding Council or that of the Department for Employment and Learning in Northern Ireland.

And although the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales made a brief announcement on its website on the same day, with a link to the Hefce page, Wales is busy with the controversial Higher Education (Wales) Bill. Indeed, Times Higher Education reported on an amendment to that bill that, if carried, would sit uncomfortably with the quality assessment inquiry (“Welsh minister amends bill over academic freedom fears”, 17 October). And what’s more, the new legislation might amend for Wales the requirement of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 Section 70 [to ensure provision is made for assessing the quality of education it funds], on which the Hefce announcement relies.

It is also puzzling that there is nothing on the website of the Regulatory Partnership Group – jointly established by Hefce and the Student Loans Company in 2011 – to suggest that this collaborative group of the sector bodies with responsibilities in England, which includes the Quality Assurance Agency, has discussed the proposal.

At the Hefce annual meeting on 16 October, where the chief executive spoke about trends and developments, quality assessment was the first bullet point in the slide titled “Hefce’s priorities for regulation”. One wonders how it came to occupy that place when it remains so unclear who is calling for this UK-wide review.

G. R. Evans
Oxford

 

Peter Williams is wrong (“Call to arms: are we on the brink of yet another Quality War?”, Opinion, 16 October). The QAA was not created “to underwrite the armistice between the institutionally owned Higher Education Quality Council and the higher education funding councils”. It was created following a report in 1996 from the Joint Planning Group for Quality Assurance in Higher Education, a body whose proceedings were never made public. But even a cursory perusal of the JPG’s minutes reveals that the underlying agenda was to end self-regulation by the sector, as exemplified by the HEQC, and absorb the HEQC’s work within a new body that, although nominally independent, could actually be metamorphosed into an arm of government.

And so it has proved to be – a state of affairs most recently confirmed by its mésalliance with the Home Office, at whose behest, last year, the QAA foisted “annual monitoring” on private providers wishing to recruit international students. In so doing, of course, the QAA has enthusiastically permitted itself to become part of the government’s machinery of immigration control – a far cry from its supposed remit to support higher education providers in enhancing the quality of the education they provide.

The fact of the matter is that since its inception the QAA has presided over the demonstrable dumbing down of academic standards in higher education. It has presided over this dumbing down, but has done nothing about it.

To give an example, in 2011 QAA Scotland’s report on Glasgow Caledonian University concluded that it had “confidence in the university’s current, and likely future, management of the academic standards of its awards and the quality of the student learning experience it provides”. Yet earlier that year the UK Border Agency had temporarily suspended the licence issued to that university to enable it to sponsor international students. The QAA’s report on this university made no mention of this suspension, which came after concerns were raised that a number of its nursing students had allegedly been working full-time in care homes and had been attending studies for only a few days each month.

The “vision” that the QAA set for itself in its 2011-14 strategy, “to be the authority on UK higher education standards and quality”, strikes me as patently ludicrous. Condemned by committees of both Houses of Parliament (the Commons in 2009 and the Lords in 2012), the QAA is manifestly not fit for purpose. It is time for a rethink.

Geoffrey Alderman
University of Buckingham

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