Universities have rejected the idea of fining institutions that fail to meet basic academic standards, a conference has heard.
Summarising responses to a sector-wide consultation on potential changes to quality assurance, Steve Egan, deputy chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said that higher education institutions of all types had opposed fines for those who failed to maintain standards.
“That [idea] got universal rejection as it would lead to students suffering,” said Mr Egan at an event in London on 30 March to discuss the regulation of higher education.
Hefce is currently consulting on a “risk-based, proportionate, affordable and low-burden” quality-assurance system that it hopes to implement from 2017.
It says that a new system is required as the sector is “undergoing rapid change” and the work now carried out by the Quality Assurance Agency may be put out to tender. As a result, parts of the QAA’s work may be parcelled out to a variety of bodies.
The review may also lead to penalties for institutions that fail to meet expectations. One punishment under consideration is the removal of degree-awarding powers, the control of which is set to be transferred from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to Hefce.
Mr Egan said that only a small number of the 187 respondents to the consultation had supported the use of this “nuclear option”.
Madeleine Atkins, Hefce’s chief executive, told the conference that “the sector is asking for a risk-based approach” to quality assurance, “not a heavy-handed one”. But there was division about whether a quality-assurance system should explicitly seek to encourage improvement at all levels or simply “get out of the way” once standards had been met, Professor Atkins said.
Hefce, which has held 13 roundtable events and two plenary sessions across the UK since it announced its review in October, is due to publish its draft plans for quality assurance after the general election. A second stage of consultation will then take place ahead of a decision in September.