Source: Elly Walton
At its most effective, quality assurance is an evolutionary activity, focused on improving learning through better teaching and management of courses
Last week the funding council for higher education made a surprise announcement: quality assessment is being put out to tender.
Predictably, this news is generating very different responses. The Russell Group clearly sees it as an opportunity to free itself from inconvenient scrutiny, despite the recent fall of several of its members in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2014-15. Institutions further down the academic ladder will be worried that their hard-won credibility as recognised UK universities could be jeopardised by Ofsted-like inspections that do not respect their mission or understand their working environment. “Alternative providers” will cry foul if a new system of assessment is introduced which makes it harder to join or stay in the “UK HE” club.
The collective memory of higher education is astonishingly short. It is only 17 years since the Quality Assurance Agency was created to underwrite the armistice between the institutionally owned Higher Education Quality Council and the higher education funding councils, and bring to an end the wasteful and destructive “Quality Wars”. These raged from 1992, when the government required the funding councils “to secure that provision is made for the assessment of quality of education provided in institutions for whose activities it provides (or is considering providing) financial support”. This created two quite separate external quality regimes – the pre-existing HEQC which audited internal quality assurance systems, and the funding councils which undertook subject-by-subject institutional inspections. The QAA eventually brought the warring parties together, developed a unified system and, following concerted opposition from the institutions, simplified it.
Since then, relative peace has reigned. By 2002 a regime of institutional reviews had evolved that largely still exists: an expert peer examination of how each institution manages the academic quality and standards of the education it is offering, with judgements, public reports, action plans and potentially dire consequences if all is not found to be reasonably well. It is an approach that has won respect from many countries and has been emulated by several. It has been adapted and adjusted several times to meet changes within higher education and has shown itself to be a flexible, responsive and relatively economical tool to meet the needs of institutions, students and public alike. Perhaps most importantly, the QAA is known and trusted around the world as the guardian and guarantor of the quality and standards of UK higher education. Any threat to dismantle all this will require a very clear justification.
Yet the Higher Education Funding Council for England has given no cogent reason for wanting to ditch the current arrangements. It simply says that higher education is changing fast and so must quality assurance. It gives no evidence of any problems with what is being done now. It doesn’t seem to have consulted anyone who knows about quality assurance and is not noticeably full of quality assurance experts of its own. Whatever the real motives for its announcement may be, and one can speculate about that, it seems an odd move to threaten to break up so well-functioning a structure because of some presumed but unspecified future need.
The QAA’s review methods are not of its own invention; for many years the English review procedures have been the result of discussion and consensus between the funding council, Universities UK, GuildHE and QAA. Indeed, concerns have been voiced in recent years that the QAA, an independent company limited by guarantee and a charity, not a government quango, has given up too much of its own independence. Nor have the agency’s review methods gone unexamined for long periods. There have been evaluations and modifications of the system, all of them involving Hefce as a central actor, roughly every five years, the latest only last year.
Most worrying, though, is the impression given by Hefce that it doesn’t really understand the purpose of external quality assurance. It doesn’t seem to appreciate that external quality assurance is not simply about occasional accountability inspections differentially based on simplistic quantitative indicators, run as cheaply as possible by hired hands and making ex cathedra judgements against superficial compliance criteria. At its most effective, quality assurance is a continuous, evolutionary and developmental activity, focused on the improvement of learning through better teaching and management of programmes and courses. Internal and external quality assurance should interact constructively.
So the risks of this extraordinary decision are considerable. Despite what Hefce says, it is likely to jeopardise the reputation of the UK’s higher education internationally, sow confusion and uncertainty within institutions, lead to new and wasteful expenditure on consultants, steering groups and conferences and reduce the opportunity for quality assurance to act as a force for improvement. If universities don’t stand up to be counted, it could spell the end of self-regulation for higher education. The QAA is not owned by Hefce and does a lot of things besides institutional reviews. This move may hurt but will not kill it – although it could lead to rearmament and the start of a new Quality War.