Plans by England’s funding council to offer up to six different tenders for quality assurance work, with a range of private outsourcing companies seen as potential bidders, will create a “dog’s dinner”, according to one expert.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England’s move to package out quality assurance is said to have angered government ministers who are preparing a higher education bill, in which plans to create a teaching excellence framework will require a stable quality system.
A bill is set to be included in the next Queen's Speech, which the government last week announced would be held on 18 May.
Hefce is thought to be anxious over the degree of control it has over its key statutory function to make provision for assessing quality, at present carried out by the Quality Assurance Agency.
The move to package out the work in a number of tenders – on some of which the funding council may be a partner itself – is seen by some observers as a way for Hefce to take more control and potentially, in future years, take quality assurance in-house.
Hefce’s approach is confirmed by a note from a recent liaison meeting with representatives of the Association of Heads of University Administration (AHUA) that was attended by Hefce chief executive Madeleine Atkins.
“Hefce is going out to tender for several elements in the new quality assessment system, the gateway checks for providers wishing to enter the sector and for a framework contract for external peer review or expertise should there be a particular issue at an HEI,” says the note from the meeting.
Hefce is expected to offer the tenders at some stage before Easter, offering up to six different packages.
The move is seen by critics as heralding the end of the co-regulatory system of quality agreed by institutions, funders and students.
Hefce is said to have employed BDO as consultants on the procurement process. Firms including Tribal, Capita and Serco are said to have been approached to explore whether they could bid for tenders.
However, such firms may have to partner with an organisation with sector expertise, such as the QAA.
The firms may be keen to find extra work after Ofsted ended outsourcing and took schools inspections in-house last year.
But critics argue that while the QAA includes representatives of institutions and students on its board, commercial companies will not have the same relationships with the sector.
Roger King, former vice-chancellor of the University of Lincoln who co-chaired a Higher Education Commission inquiry on sector regulation, said: “We need a strong quality agency and not one neutered by having its various functions hived off through tendering. The Hefce move would result in a close link between quality assurance and quality enhancement being sundered and a focus too much on assessment.”
He added that “assuring newcomers to the sector requires a collaborative approach between [a] quality agency and the new institutions where quality support, guidance and education will be a vital accompaniment to inspection. Parcelling out all these quality functions in the way proposed endangers an informed, experienced and holistic approach and makes it all a dog's dinner.”
On potential bids for tenders from outsourcing companies, Professor King said that there could be “a potential conflict of interest if a service provider…is contracted in any way to pass quality judgements on institutions that they supply commercial products to”.