External peer review of university standards across the UK must continue, coordinated by a body “independent of government and funding decisions”, the Quality Assurance Agency says.
In its response to the consultation on the future of quality assessment in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the QAA rejects the proposal to abolish institutional reviews for established providers and to replace them with increased reliance on vouching by governing bodies and checks by the funding councils on student outcomes data.
The proposals to end institutional reviews were outlined by the Higher Education Funding Council for England in a consultation document published in June.
The QAA, which conducts institutional reviews and is yet to have its role in a future quality assessment system defined, acknowledges that the current process is “complex and at times too mechanistic for institutions with a strong track record”.
But its response warns that “placing greater reliance on internal governance risks shifting burden rather than reducing it, and could potentially even increase burden during the transition period”.
The reputation of UK higher education “is enhanced by the system of external review by academics and students”, according to the QAA, which says that such an approach “reassures providers that judgements are made by those with deep relevant knowledge and understanding of the sector”.
Stating that a UK-wide structure of quality assurance “avoids fragmentation” and ensures that nations’ higher education systems form a “coherent brand”, the QAA argues that the best approach would be for England, Wales and Northern Ireland to adopt a review model based on the Scottish approach of quality enhancement.
With a focus on teaching and learning, assessment and the student experience, this would ensure that reviews are “progressive in nature, and not an impediment to other activity, overly burdensome or a ‘tick box’ exercise”, the QAA says.
Established providers currently undergo review every six years. The QAA’s consultation response does not specify a preferred frequency of evaluation.
However, it says that institutions with “demonstrated quality assurance capacity” should have a “significantly extended cycle” under a “risk-based process that tailors the intensity and frequency of external review to each provider”.
Therefore quantitative and qualitative data should still be collected, but responsibility for monitoring and analysing this information should sit with an “external quality agency” that is separate from the role of “funder and regulator”, the response says.
This would allow for a “coherent, consistent and comprehensive approach”, and would “protect independence and avoid conflicts of interests”.
Anthony McClaran, the QAA’s chief executive, said that UK higher education “must take care not to lose” the benefits of external review. It should “hold on to those elements of our current system that work” and “leave behind those that, collectively, we agree aren’t serving us well”.
“We need quality checks and balances that are fit for the future, proportionate and flexible, protecting the interests of students wherever and however they study,” he said.