Abolishing regular institutional reviews would damage the UK’s ambitions to generate more revenues from overseas students, a senior international regulator has warned.
Padraig Walsh, chief executive of Quality and Qualifications Ireland, said that any move away from the principle of periodic peer review – the basis of quality assurance across the European Union – would erode confidence in degrees offered by UK universities and potentially threaten planned growth in international student numbers.
Dr Walsh, who is also president of the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education, told the Quality Assurance Agency’s annual conference in Leeds on 11 June that international students and the governments that sponsor them are reassured by the publication of independent institutional reviews that set out how teaching quality and academic standards are maintained.
“If people cannot see this, they begin to lose trust over time,” he said.
His comments follow the leak of draft proposals for the future of quality assurance in which the QAA would no longer undertake reviews at universities every six years. A final document from the Higher Education Funding Council for England was due as Times Higher Education went to press.
Under the new “risk-based” regulation set out in the draft, universities would be monitored by Hefce every five years using annual returns on student outcomes, such as dropout rates and student satisfaction scores.
But Dr Walsh said that risk-based quality assurance did not provide the assurances that overseas students and governments required when looking to invest in higher education.
He compared the situation to a restaurant in Dublin with two Michelin stars that was still vetted almost every year by the haute cuisine guide despite having held the accolade since the 1980s. “Michelin does not do risk-based assurance,” Dr Walsh said.
Speaking to THE, Dr Walsh said that Irish authorities might need to look again at the degrees taught in the Republic of Ireland that are validated by UK universities if quality assurance practice were changed substantially.
“If you validate awards, periodic evaluations are important. We would expect institutions to be quality-assured to the same standard as we do ourselves,” he said, adding that “delisting” was a possibility in other countries where UK universities operated.
Dr Walsh said that universities in Scotland – where quality assurance systems are not set to change – might also be affected by the loss of confidence engendered by the proposals. “This debate is just an English debate, but it will wash over to them,” he added.
The issue of future quality assurance arrangements and international activity was also addressed by the QAA’s chief executive in his keynote speech.
Anthony McClaran, who championed the UK’s “internationally admired system of peer review”, said that the QAA had a role to play if the UK was to hit its target for increasing the value of educational exports from £18 billion in 2012 to £30 billion in 2020.
The watchdog was “known, trusted and respected round the world as the safeguarder of quality and standards in UK higher education”, and its “work will become even more crucial in the future” given the ambitious international growth targets outlined by Jo Johnson, the minister for universities and science, Mr McClaran said.
I’m out: compulsory register would deter external examiners
Creating a national register of external examiners would be “disastrous” for higher education as academics would boycott it, a senior university administrator has claimed.
Derfel Owen, director of academic services at University College London, said he believed that most of his own university’s staff would baulk at signing up to an external examining system in which training was compulsory.
Plans for a body to oversee external examining and the training of staff are part of draft proposals for the future of quality assurance drawn up by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which have been seen by some within the sector.
At the Quality Assurance Agency’s annual conference in Leeds on 11 June, Mr Owen claimed that most senior academics at UCL had been external examiners at other universities.
“But if you have to be trained and put on a national register, the majority of them will not do it,” he said. “There is a reason why it has been proposed and rejected before – it would be disastrous for the sector.”
Mr Owen also criticised elements of the consultation process that preceded the draft being drawn up, including a survey sent to institutions by the consultants KPMG asking them to identify the various costs of running quality assurance processes.
The KPMG study has not yet been released, but it is understood to say that institutions spend an estimated £1 billion a year on dealing with regulation.
Mr Owen described the KPMG questions in the study as “leading”. He said that many QAA-compliant processes identified by the firm as potentially unnecessary would nevertheless be undertaken by institutions as part of good governance and monitoring.
“If you are developing a new course, it does not appear from nowhere – it involves certain processes,” he told Times Higher Education.