Australia can help England along the QA path ahead

QAA chief Anthony McClaran, who is soon to take over Teqsa, tells Chris Havergal that Down Under they have pioneered a risk- and data-based system

August 1, 2015
Dangerous currents warning sign on beach, Australia
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The UK can learn much from Australia about quality assurance in higher education, according to a sector leader who is swapping one system for the other.

Anthony McClaran, who will leave the UK’s Quality Assurance Agency in October after six years as chief executive to take on the equivalent role at Australia’s Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency, told Times Higher Education that his move had nothing to do with the ongoing review of quality assessment in England.

Instead he described the opportunity to join Teqsa as “a terrific opportunity at this stage of my career”.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England proposes to move further towards a risk-based system and to abolish regular institutional reviews undertaken by the QAA. Under the plan, the performance of established providers would be undertaken via the monitoring of data relating to student outcomes.

Although the future role for the QAA in this area is unclear, Mr McClaran said he felt the debate was moving “in a positive direction”, and he highlighted that Teqsa had been a pioneer in this field.

“Teqsa was the first agency to prominently engage with risk-based quality assurance, and the idea of quality assurance being risk-based has now become a very important strand in quality assurance thinking around the world,” Mr McClaran said. “Teqsa was also engaged early with the use of data in external quality assurance, and that is of relevance to the debate we are having here in the UK.”

Following Australia’s move to a risk-based system, it appears that ministers are nonetheless particularly concerned with reducing the burden that Teqsa places on institutions.

The organisation’s budget was cut significantly last year, and legislation was proposed that would have removed much of Teqsa’s quality assurance role.

The bill was eventually watered down, but Christopher Pyne, Australia’s minister for education and training, made clear in a statement issued to welcome Mr McClaran’s appointment that a key priority would be ensuring that “institutions are not overburdened with red tape”.

Mr McClaran, however, said he believed that both UK and Australian higher education systems shared an “understanding of the fundamental importance of quality assurance” and that balancing this “with the desire not to create systems which are excessively bureaucratic or burdensome” was the “subject of discussion and debate in both of our systems”.

In relation to the planned reforms in England, Mr McClaran said the QAA would reiterate “the continuing importance of external review”, highlighting that it was a requirement of European standards.

“We would support the value of external review,” he said, although he added: “Does external review need to remain exactly as it is at the moment? Certainly not.”

Mr McClaran said observers who foresaw the imminent demise of the QAA in the proposed reforms were wrong, emphasising the organisation's activities elsewhere in the UK, and its work with alternative providers and institutions seeking degree-awarding powers.

New policy developments may provide further opportunities, and Mr McClaran said the QAA was “particularly focused” on the development of the teaching excellence framework.

Mr McClaran said he was “very encouraged” by the statement by Jo Johnson, the universities minister, that the TEF “should be underpinned by an external assessment process undertaken by an independent quality body from within the existing landscape”.

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