A dedicated arbiter of credit

November 29, 1996

Harold Silver of The Open University explains how its validation service works. Little understood and little reported, an alternative and largely private higher education sector is mushrooming. One of the major players creating this 'other' sector is The Open University.

The Open University set up The Open University Validation Service in 1992 to assist institutions that would be left without a validating partner when the Council for National Academic Awards closed in 1993. Some of these institutions gained degree awarding powers and some sought validation from other, mainly local, universities, but of them and their approved courses were inherited by OUVS. The service is not expected to make a profit, but it does aim to cover costs and plough back any surplus into the validation service.

Institutions accredited by OUVS vary dramatically. They include substantial public institutions aiming for degree-awarding powers, small private colleges, further education colleges with higher education courses, and professional and industrial organisations with one or more courses. For other universities, accreditation or validation (the terms are not used consistently) may be a holding operation for a college on the brink of research degree awarding powers and university status, or a preliminary to merger, or a broadening partnership with further education and other local organisations.

OUVS now accredits over 40 institutions, including four in other countries. Within these institutions it validates the courses of more than 7,000 students. It credit rates courses in over 30 institutions or organisations, and has more than 400 research students in institutions known as sponsoring establishments.

Nearly half of the OUVS-accredited institutions are private and only half a dozen of the credit-rated organisations are higher education institutions in the formal sense, as are only ten of the 72 sponsoring establishments for research degrees. For this reason these organisations can be thought of as an expanding "other higher education" sector.

OUVS receives more than 100 serious enquiries a year, approves about nine or ten, and it may take two to four years between an institution deciding to approach OUVS and receiving accreditation. On average the whole procedure will cost a new institution with a reasonable programme of studies about Pounds 3,000. In some cases, where approval is sought for part of the academic programme of an established institution, such as Ruskin College or Westminster College in Oxford, or Homerton College in Cambridge, the accreditation of the institution is less the issue than the validation of the course.

The OUVS-accredited institutions include seven bible or theological colleges or seminaries, and other private institutions like the European Business School, Richmond College and the British School of Osteopathy.

Within accredited institutions it validates a wide range of courses: MA courses for the Architectural Association School of Architecture; certificates and diplomas of the Institute of Management and the School of Clinical Perfusion Science at St Thomas' Hospital, London; Postgraduate Certificates of Education for four educational consortia; BAs in design, painting and photography and media at Northbrook College (West Sussex); certificates in management at British Telecom and at a Centre of the South East Thames Regional Health Authority - in the latter case also a doctorate in clinical psychology.

It has validated 19 undergraduate and postgraduate courses of the Central School of Speech and Drama, 15 of Harper Adams College, 35 of North East Surrey College of Technology, and 23 of Northern College, Aberdeen and Dundee. The numbers are not always clear as many courses are modular, multi-track or multi-stage, with alternative awards (for example a diploma and an MA).

OUVS credit rates 25 organisations. Credit rating consists of assigning a value in credit points (on the advice of qualified people from academic institutions, professional bodies and industry) to "learning programmes", in terms of equivalence to existing higher education awards. OUVS allocates credit points to programmes conducted by industry and commerce, professional and educational organisations, and public and private bodies of various kinds, and the credit points may contribute towards a degree programme under the Credit Accumulation and Transfer Scheme.

Its credit-rating covers such organisations as the Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work, the Institute of Personnel Development, the Library Association, the Royal Naval Staff College, and the Royal Society of Arts Examination Board.

Through OUVS The Open University is itself accredited by the National Council for Vocational Awards and the Scottish Vocational Education Council to approve assessment centres for some 95 higher level vocational qualifications. Occupational areas are still designing the pattern of higher level awards and the approach of OUVS has been one of partnership with the relevant industry lead bodies (shortly to become national training organisations). The balance between academic accreditation and vocational assessment remains to be seen, but there is evidence from those centres using the service that an "all through service", where the balance may be struck through negotiation with a single awarding body, has considerable merit.

An establishment intending to sponsor research degrees has to satisfy the OU that it has the organisation, research facilities and staff to supervise and support postgraduate study and provide research training at the appropriate standard. If the university's research degrees committee endorses an application, it goes to the OUVS validating committee for approval. The list of such sponsoring establishments includes the British Antarctic Survey, the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, 14 Medical Research Council research units, Bass Brewers, Zeneca Pharmaceuticals and Zeneca Central Toxicology Laboratory, and a range of other industrial and academic research centres, NHS Trusts and professional bodies.

Some of the largest concentrations of research students are at Harper Adams College, the MRC National Institute of Medical Research, Queen Margaret College, Edinburgh, the Architectural Association school of architecture and the Imperial Cancer Research Fund.

The most recent undertakings by OUVS have been the accreditation and credit-rating of distance education modules of The College of Law, which is responsible for 40 per cent of UK legal education.

The OUVS has also developed a close and extensive relationship with the Institute of Health and Care Development, established by the National Health Service. This involves both the award by OUVS of vocational qualifications at some 80 assessment centres, and from 1997 the approval of a variety of academic awards and the credit rating of professional awards, the standards for all of which rest with a central IHCD vocational and academic board.

OUVS has a validating committee that vets applications for OUVS accreditation, and monitors the services' work on courses and awards. The committee reports to a validation board comprising senior representatives from within the university, higher education, the professions and industry, chaired by the vice chancellor and reporting to senate. The board oversees the policy of and developments in the work of OUVS, which is subject to the same quality assurance scrutiny as the rest of the OU.

Given the range of related institutions and organisations, and responsibility to its committees and the OU for maintaining standards, OUVS does more than receive applications and monitor procedures. With its accredited institutions it maintains strong officer links and provides seminars and conferences and other support, some through the OU's quality support centre, which shares the same building as OUVS in Gray's Inn Road, London.

This is all an important part of "the other higher education". As a result of these procedures there is a place in higher education for the All Nations Christian College, the European Business School, the National Coaching Foundation, New College (Durham), and several schools-centred partnerships for initial teacher training. There are opportunities for established institutions of higher education to extend their activities, for example in social work, nursing or other forms of professional preparation, in ways not possible within their existing frameworks.

Harold Silver is visiting professor, the Quality Support Centre at The Open University.

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