‘Extraordinary’ OfS rules risk grade inflation, says ex-QAA head

Peter Williams concerned by requirement for English universities to deliver ‘successful outcomes’ for ‘all’ students

April 10, 2018
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New rules that will require English universities to deliver “successful outcomes” for “all” of their students risk fuelling grade inflation, a former head of the Quality Assurance Agency has warned.

In new guidance published on the Office for Students’ website, institutions are told that they will need to “meet certain conditions” to register with the new higher education regulator, allowing them to receive tuition fees via the state-backed loans system or access grant funding.

To meet the regulator’s new rules, institutions are told that they “must”, from August 2019, “deliver for all [their] students successful outcomes which are valued by employers, or which enable further study” and “ensure that qualifications awarded hold their value over time, in line with recognised standards”.

However, Peter Williams, who was chief executive of the QAA from 2001 to 2009, told Times Higher Education that he was shocked by the “extraordinary” conditions of registration.

“‘Delivering’ successful outcomes for all students would seem to amount to higher education institutions being required to guarantee a degree for every student,” said Mr Williams.

The condition’s wording might even imply the “guarantee of a ‘good’ degree – a first or 2:1”, given that that is now typically viewed as the definition of a “successful” outcome by most students and employers, he added.

“This is very dangerous nonsense for the Office for Students to be peddling,” said Mr Williams, who added that “at face value, OfS’ ‘conditions’ would seem to suggest that degrees are commodities to be bought and sold”.

The OfS guidance to institutions, published on 1 April, mirrors the content of its 166-page regulatory framework, which was released at the end of February following a five-month consultation with the sector.

That document explains that the OfS will assess “successful outcomes” by examining “a range of student outcomes indicators”, including continuation rates, degree outcomes and graduate employment levels.

However, Mr Williams questioned whether the new regulator “understands the implications of what it is saying” by stating that “all” students should have successful outcomes, adding that he wondered how “such slack drafting could be permitted in a high-profile regulator of this sort”.

Asking universities to guarantee the value of their degrees into the future was also unrealistic, added Mr Williams, who said this ability “is surely not in anyone’s gift”.

“For instance, is a computing degree from the 1980s as valuable now as when it was awarded?” he asked.

According to the regulatory framework, the OfS will judge if a qualification is holding its value by referring to assessments by the QAA on provider standards, student data including degree outcomes and how they change over time, and complaints from students, staff or others “about the value of [a provider’s] qualifications”.

Nicola Dandridge, the OfS' chief executive, said the conditions of registration had been subject to consultation.

"We expect all universities and colleges to work hard to secure positive outcomes for all of their students," she said. "Many students choose to go to university precisely in order to increase their chances of getting the job or career they aspire to do. Of course, successful outcomes require commitment and effort both from the university or college, and the student.

"We cannot predict exactly which jobs today's graduates will be doing 20 or 30 years from now. But we do expect universities and colleges to equip students with the knowledge, skills and experience now to help them succeed in the future."

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

Fully agree more nonsense from yet another reulator. Way too much bureaucracy in UK Universities and lack of common sense. Problem is that it means a huge waste of time and resources that could be better put towards actaully teaching students and doing research.

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