TEF must include independent peer review, says new QAA chief

Interim chief executive Douglas Blackstock warns teaching excellence framework will lack credibility without external assessment

October 8, 2015
German butter experts at work, Niedersachsenhalle, Hannover
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Check your work: credibility among public and students demands independent scrutiny, says quality watchdog’s interim CEO

The teaching excellence framework will lack credibility if it is not backed up by independent peer review, the new head of the Quality Assurance Agency has said.

Douglas Blackstock, who became interim chief executive on 5 October following the departure of Anthony McClaran, told Times Higher Education that there had to be some method of assessing the claims of excellence made by universities.

The abolition of the cyclical institutional reviews that are currently undertaken by the QAA has been proposed by the Higher Education Funding Council for England in its review of quality assessment, but the announcement of the TEF has given the debate renewed significance, particularly since the government’s indication that universities that can demonstrate that they offer high quality teaching will be allowed to increase their tuition fees in line with inflation.

“I think, to be credible to the public and to students, there has to be some form of independent assessment,” Mr Blackstock said. “That doesn’t necessarily have to involve us but we would argue for teams of senior academics making a peer-based judgement that assesses what someone is achieving, whatever the definitions of excellence are.

“If assessment for the TEF isn’t undertaken by people with academic credibility, it probably won’t get the confidence and support from the sector it deserves.”

When he announced the TEF, Jo Johnson, the universities minister, said it would be “underpinned by an external assessment process undertaken by an independent quality body from within the existing landscape” – a statement welcomed by the QAA. But Mr Johnson also said any external review must be “light touch”, and many universities argue that the existing system of institutional review is too burdensome.

Mr Blackstock, the QAA’s chief operating officer, said his priority as acting chief executive was to help create a “single system” encompassing quality assurance and the TEF.

He accepted that established providers did not need to be consistently retested against baseline standards via institutional review but argued there was the opportunity, in light of the TEF, to “strip back some of the broader areas we look at to refocus external review on the academic experiences of students”.

Mr Blackstock argued that many of the “building blocks” of the TEF already existed in the QAA’s quality code.

In particular, he said the QAA could focus greater attention on individual subject areas, in light of suggestions that departments, rather than institutions, may be rated for their teaching. He acknowledged, however, that this would not be as comprehensive as the system of departmental inspections abolished in 2001.

“We have heard some people saying that the TEF may look along subject lines,” Mr Blackstock said. “No one is arguing for subject review, but there would be a process by which universities could be assessed on something much more meaningful to students, and that is subject area.”

Some observers believed that the quality assessment review sounded the death knell for the QAA, but the future of Hefce itself is now being questioned in light of planned spending cuts, and Mr Blackstock said he believed his organisation had an important role to play.

“We have been here for 18 years, we have gone through a number of changes, and we are prepared to work through the changes that will come out of the quality review and the TEF,” he said.


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