Comparing degree standards: assumptions to be ‘re-tested’

Three of the UK’s funding bodies want to “re-test assumptions” about the importance of comparability of standards across the sector’s institutions

January 15, 2015

The question of whether there is still a role for external examining to provide judgements on standards is also posed in a “discussion document” that is part of a review of the UK’s quality assessment system.

The document – published today by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales and the Department for Employment and Learning of Northern Ireland – also notes that “the lifting of the student numbers cap in England has caused the Westminster government to worry about the quality of the students’ experience – in part at least an academic quality issue”.

In October, Hefce cast the future of the Quality Assurance Agency into doubt by announcing that it would invite external bodies to bid for work undertaken by the UK-wide higher education watchdog and setting in motion a review of quality assessment.

The discussion document explains that the Scottish Funding Council is reviewing its own arrangements “through a separate process,” but that “the four UK funding bodies have agreed to share findings and views”.

The three funding bodies say the document “aims to stimulate wide-ranging discussion and debate”, exploring the “deep, critical questions that need to be addressed before the more practical issues surrounding the design and implementation of any new quality assessment arrangements can be considered”.

It sets the search for new quality assessment arrangements in the context of major changes such as the growth of private providers under the coalition government, the abolition of student number controls and the emergence of massive open online courses.

On academic standards, the three funding bodies say: “Previous consultations about quality assessment have explored how to demonstrate comparability of standards between providers and between subject areas.

“It is not clear that a settled view of this issue has been reached in a way that is able to satisfy all key stakeholders.

“This discussion document is seeking to re-test assumptions about the importance or otherwise of demonstrating a reasonable degree of comparability of standards in an increasingly diverse system with different types of provision, and, if desired, the mechanisms that might be appropriate to achieve this.”

The funding bodies also pose questions on external examining: “How far should reliance be placed on the external examining system to provide judgements about standards? Is there still a role for it or not? Should it be strengthened?”

Other questions posed include: “Can one concept of ‘quality’ still hold good? One external quality assessment system? For all providers? At all stages of their development?”

The document also looks at UK higher education institutions’ growing international activities, asking: “Should a revised quality assessment system include scrutiny of activities taking place outside the UK?”

Responses are invited with a deadline of noon on February.

A second consultation document to be published in the summer will “set out clear options for the scope of future quality assessment activities”, the funding bodies say.

Shaping the future of quality assessment

UK higher education is changing. It has already changed more rapidly in the last few years than probably ever before, and it is likely to continue to evolve.

There are shifts in both the nature of the provision and in the demands of those who seek information about the quality of this provision. Over the next decade there will be greater diversity of providers and provision, new applications of digital and internet-based learning, and increasingly global patterns of delivery.  

In such an environment, students and potential students need to be confident that the higher education experience in which they are investing valuable time and money meets their expectations.  And as the diversity of provision grows, employers will seek assurance that the changing patterns of learning, and the different forms of providers that they encounter, meet validated quality standards.

The existing international reputation for excellence that UK higher education enjoys is hard-won by the people who work in our universities and colleges. But it is also a consequence of our determination to have highly respected systems of quality assessment and assurance, which are regularly reviewed and adjusted to meet the changing needs of the system being assessed. 

The review of teaching quality assessment, announced in October by the funding bodies in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, is a valuable opportunity to reflect on what these changing needs might be.  How do we want to conceptualise quality assessment and assurance in the future?  What should it deliver, and how and for whom?

The Quality Assessment Review Steering Group, which I chair, has today published a discussion document which invites institutions, students and others to participate in the debate. It is a very broad-based document which we all hope will stimulate debate in higher education and with partners of higher education.

We are posing some big questions. What does quality look like, and how can we assess it? Can there be comparability of standards beyond a minimum threshold in an increasingly diverse environment? How should we detect and deal with inadequate quality of teaching or standards?  Should we recognise quality assessment systems in other jurisdictions? In considering these questions, we need also to take account of the contexts and priorities of different parts of the UK (the Scottish Funding Council is reviewing its own arrangements through a separate process).

We hope the discussion document will be used to stimulate a debate at the heart of universities and colleges, and for this to generate new ideas that can then be fed back to us. We don’t want this to be just a form-filling exercise.

We also welcome views from others outside higher education. What confidence will employers, government and the taxpayer seek from future quality assessment arrangements?

If there are demands a future assessment system must meet that we have overlooked, please let us know. We want to know what you think needs to happen to ensure that our teaching and learning quality assessment system in the UK is excellent and fit for purpose.

The steering group will meet at the end of March to consider the outcomes emerging from this first phase of discussion. The second phase of the review, in the summer of 2015, will address more detailed questions relating to the design and implementation of any future quality assessment arrangements. The decision about whether to make changes and, if so, how to procure the future system will be made by the funding bodies in September.

In order to be as open as possible, we are publishing summaries of our meetings on the website of the Higher Education Funding Council for England on behalf of the three funding bodies involved.  We look forward to seeing your responses and listening to your views.

Dame Shirley Pearce is chair of the Quality Assessment Review Steering Group

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Reader's comments (1)

Level 2 Tech Awards and Certs for 14-19 year olds, Level 3 Applied General Vocational A levels and the TechBacc (Tech Levels) in particular are likely to change the dominant proportion of conventional academic type A levels accepted for HE study. Correspondingly, many related degree courses will be employment sector specific, likely require Professional accreditation and therefore much greater involvement of industry based practitioners in the quality control process.


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