Three sector agencies will collaborate and share costs under a partnership that could be well placed to monitor standards in UK higher education.
The M5 Group has been formed by Higher Education Statistics Agency, Jisc and the Quality Assurance Agency, which are all based in the South West of England.
Initial plans for the partnership include the sharing of staff and joint purchasing, with a view to keeping agency subscription costs down.
But the trio will also be looking to develop new services, and could be prime contenders to take on quality assurance work that is due to go out to tender in England, or the administration of future rounds of the teaching excellence framework: combining the QAA’s expertise in this area with Hesa’s data capability and Jisc’s work on learning analytics.
Douglas Blackstock, the QAA’s chief executive, said a key advantage was that all three agencies worked on a UK-wide basis; and that collaboration with Hesa and Jisc could help improve the QAA’s core work.
“The world of external quality assurance is changing and for those institutions with a strong track record, we are looking much more at outcomes over a longer period and quality enhancement,” Mr Blackstock said. “But we have also got new providers with less of a track record and a less established set of data and we know these are coming on board with Hesa, so this can improve the way that quality assurance works.”
Mr Blackstock and his fellow chief executives – Paul Clark at Hesa and Paul Feldman at Jisc – said that they had not discussed joint bids for specific pieces of work.
However, all were clear that they were looking to develop new services through the partnership.
“If the best offer for the sector can be delivered through collaboration, we would be open for that,” Mr Blackstock said.
Details of the governance of the partnership will be confirmed in coming weeks and another key opportunity could be the development of joint services that could be marketed internationally.
For UK higher education providers, the partnership should allow agency subscription fees to be kept as low as possible, Dr Feldman said.
“There are great opportunities to work together to enhance the opportunities for the sector. And at the same time I think there are cost pressures on all the agencies, so if we can actually grow without bringing new costs on, that can only be good for the sector,” he said. “The opportunity to do more for the same and ideally – we can find ways – for less has got to be the way forward.”
The three chief executives said that a formal merger between the agencies had not been discussed, but said it could not be definitively ruled out as a future possibility.