Right course to make the grade

January 4, 2008

From a sector rife with disjointed local practices to a coherent nationwide framework: in just a decade a clear blueprint for UK higher education has emerged, Peter Williams reflects on challenges past and present.

Last year turned out to be one of several major ten-year anniversaries. In 1997, the Blair premiership began, Lord Dearing published his report on higher education, Harry Potter and the rather different educational world of Hogwarts were introduced, and the UK last won the Eurovision Song Contest (Katrina and the Waves - remember?).

On this heady scene, the Quality Assurance Agency appeared. The unlikely child of the strife and hostility of the "quality wars" of the 1990s, the QAA was intended to provide a unified, rational focus for the external quality assurance of UK higher education. No sooner was it born than it was heaped with blessings. Dearing's gift was a ready-made set of tasks: not only a proposal for a less burdensome approach to the review of institutional quality and standards, but also the blueprint for a simple, understandable structure for UK higher education.

How have we done? The creation between 1997 and 2001 of the structure now known as the "academic infrastructure" was a major achievement. It may now seem inconceivable that, before its creation, our much vaunted national higher education system was in reality no more than a loosely connected series of local practices - local to the extent of being departmentally or even personally determined - that were largely incomprehensible to all but practitioners themselves. What did a bachelors degree mean? With "honours"? What was a masters degree? Were degree courses in physics the same or similar in all universities? Did it matter? What would I know and be able to do if I were to take this course? What was it for? This set of mysteries shared a common lexicon but had few common definitions and offered few answers. It may arguably have been an appropriate arrangement when the preservation of the academic species was a principal purpose of higher education, but scarcely sustainable in a world where "inclusion", "widening participation" and "employability" had become the piper's tunes.

Into this world Dearing injected the clarity and simplicity of vision of the academic infrastructure. It proposed a qualifications framework, explaining the nature of all levels of academic qualifications and their relationships to one another; (benchmark) descriptions of the shared features of honours degrees, subject by subject; a codification of recognised good practice in the organisation of effective teaching and learning; and a common way of explaining to students and others the nature of individual study programmes, their intended purposes and outcomes, approaches to teaching and learning, and assessment methods ("programme specifications").

When first proposed, these four elements were seen by some to be the work of the devil. They were said to represent an attempt to create national curricula for higher education, amounting to the external control of universities, and to be another manifestation of the death of western civilisation as the academic community knew and preferred it. In fact, the QAA was at great pains to ensure that the development of the academic infrastructure was placed entirely in the hands of the academic community. The whole of the project was undertaken by groups of people nominated by and recruited from across the spectrum of universities and other higher education institutions.

The QAA's role was to help those people in their work, and in this it succeeded. The subsequent definition of the academic infrastructure as "reference points" rather than "requirements" further clarified the objective of the project: to protect institutional and national autonomy while creating a coherent UK-wide higher education system.

By 2001, the four elements of the academic infrastructure were in place, and they have slowly but surely become recognised as a valuable support to students and academics alike. They have also, surprisingly perhaps, found some resonance across Europe through the Bologna Process. We now have European qualifications descriptors, European standards and guidelines for quality assurance and, in the Tuning Project, a form of benchmark description for each subject. Only the programme specifications remain to be taken up.

The QAA's adoption of Dearing's other main recommendation, a simpler and less intrusive form of external review, was slower and, regrettably, less adroitly managed than its work on the academic infrastructure. The opportunity for a swift transition to a review solely of institutions' quality and standards management practices was passed over in the apparent (and erroneous) belief that universities could not and should not ultimately be trusted to assure their own quality and standards.

It took the extraordinary political intervention of 2001 to create the quality assurance framework in England with which we are now familiar, and which places responsibility for quality and standards firmly with institutions. But while that episode thankfully turned out alright in the end, it had the unforeseen effect of destroying any UK-wide approach to external quality reviews. This might well have happened anyway, with increasingly independent higher education strategies in Scotland and Wales, but it was not planned, and the aftermath had to be managed with considerable care. The upshot is that we now have three different external quality assurance procedures in the UK, all managed successfully by one organisation.

Fitness for purpose, reduction of burden, less is more: in higher education at least, quality assurance has moved purposefully away over the past six years from confrontational head-banging. I hope it is now evolving into something both indispensable and even desirable - a help, not a hindrance, to effective learning by our hugely increased student population.

What lies ahead for the QAA in the next ten years? Well, there is no shortage of mountains to climb in the landscape of quality assurance. The emergence of "employer engagement" as a major policy initiative, for example, brings with it a need to work out how institutions can ensure that their academic standards are secured and the value of any resulting awards protected in that novel, volatile and uncharted learning environment.

Transnational education is another mountain. Whatever we choose or wish to do by way of quality assurance in the UK, our universities' increasing reliance on international students and overseas ventures means that they cannot ignore the demands of other countries. In many of them, words such as "enhancement" and "skills agenda" are heard with suspicion, and programme-based accreditation is the expectation and the norm. Quality assurance has become an international activity, and our institutions will need to demonstrate that they are delivering the high quality and standards required by international students. How this can be done effectively and convincingly, while still limiting direct intervention into institutions' lives, will be an interesting challenge.

But the biggest challenge of all remains: how to win the hearts and minds of the ordinary academic, how to shift the perception of quality assurance from one of external policing or central control to one of internalised, individual, professional academic responsibility, bringing with it the wish, intention and means to do even better by one's students. Will this take another ten years? - at least. Holy grails do sometimes take a while to find.

Peter Williams is chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency.

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