Some assurance on assessments

January 21, 2016

As ministers and officials in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills assimilate different responses to the Green Paper, there are some overarching messages that emerged from the discussions we had in the Quality Assurance Review Steering Group that I hope they will listen to (“Higher education Green Paper: Concerns over TEF timetable and fee caps”, 15 January).

First, while differences in funding and governance arrangements between the four parts of the UK must be respected, any QA process or teaching excellence framework must enable a “read across” between institutions in England, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland. It will be a threat to the international position of UK higher education if the systems for the TEF and QA do not allow for easy comparison of performance across the devolved administrations.

Second, the teaching, research and knowledge transfer activities of a university cannot easily be separated. They influence and inform each other and benefit from integrated planning. There will be unintended consequences of the proposed greater separation of teaching, research and know-ledge transfer funding that may adversely affect the student’s learning environment.

Third, the regulatory landscape for higher education is complex and simplification will be welcomed. The focus on a body that has student interest at the core is timely but there are risks to considering the student interest in isolation. To imagine that the quality of a student’s experience is not intimately related to overall institutional performance is a mistake. Currently, one of the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s valued functions is to know about, and care about, the overall performance of an institution.

Fourth, key to the QARSG discussions was the view that assessment and assurance programmes need to be proportionate, risk-based and cost-effective. Too often in the past, new ideas and measures have led to universities having to provide the same information in similar, but frustratingly different, forms with costs and distractions that militate against the student interest.

The government has rightly raised the profile and importance of teaching excellence and this should be welcomed. In implementing a TEF and simplifying the regulatory environment, the complex interaction of factors that determine excellence in teaching and learning must not be forgotten.

Shirley Pearce
Chair, Quality Assurance Review Steering Group, and former vice-chancellor of Loughborough University
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