Plans to put the quality assessment of English higher education out to tender in six packages have been confirmed by the country’s funding council, which intends to register itself as the sector’s official quality body.
The tenders, representing most of the activities currently undertaken by the Quality Assurance Agency, will be offered by the Higher Education Funding Council for England in an open procurement process that could see some work go to private outsourcing companies.
One tender will be for independent peer review visits to test providers’ suitability to enter the higher education system, while another would be for one-off verification of an institution’s ability to assure its own standards once it has passed a probationary period.
Further tenders will cover the investigation of concern about providers, support for governing bodies to assure standards, and exploration of training for external examiners. The final tender would focus on universities’ international activities.
Hefce’s revised model for quality assessment, published on 18 March, confirms the council’s intention to push ahead with most of the proposed reforms that it announced in June last year. The changes are set to come into force in 2017-18, with pilots being undertaken next year.
Regular reviews of established providers against baseline standards, currently undertaken by the QAA, are set to be abolished, with standards to be monitored via annual data returns and assurances from governing bodies instead.
However, Hefce intends to expand the remit of its current assurance review visits, which take place every five years, to “check the evidence and processes used by the governing body”. This would “not become a burden on a similar scale” to the existing QAA reviews, Hefce insists.
For new entrants to the sector, a UK-wide standing committee will be formed, including the funding councils and the QAA. This would draw up a set of entry standards, which new providers seeking to receive Hefce funding would be tested against via a peer review visit.
New providers would be placed in a “developmental period” lasting four years, during which time they would be under enhanced scrutiny, and would face a further peer review visit at the end of this period, at which point they could be judged as “established”, retained in the developmental category, or removed from the register of approved providers.
Hefce says that the gateway process “will be designed to ensure that it can produce reliable judgements about a provider’s readiness to enter the higher education sector and deliver a high-quality academic experience, even when the provider does not have a substantial track record of delivering higher education”.
The main opposition to Hefce’s proposals had focused on the proposed role of governing bodies, and plans to introduce training for and a register of external examiners.
Universities had questioned whether governing bodies had the skills or remit to provide assurances about academic standards, so Hefce has clarified that the role of governors will focus on scrutinising the work of senates and academic boards, not being “drawn into quality management” itself.
On external examining, concerns had been raised that greater professionalisation could create something that looked like a “national inspectorate”, so Hefce has said it will not take forward its plan for a register of trained examiners. However, Hefce says that funding councils will work with sector bodies to develop online training for examiners, and to explore “calibration” of marking practices.
The other changes to the proposals focus on ensuring that they meet European standards that apply across the Bologna higher education area. Hefce says that it will seek recognition as England’s named quality body, as required by the Bologna guidelines. This is a role currently held by the QAA.
In order to ensure that judgements about standards are made by peer and student review, as the standards require, Hefce says it will recruit a panel of reviewers to judge evidence submitted by universities in annual data returns. The funding council adds that it will “consider how best to develop the funding bodies’ existing five-yearly assurance visits”.