Revised proposals for quality assurance in English higher education represent an attempt by the country’s funding council to “take control” of monitoring standards and may fail to lighten the burden on institutions, according to sector leaders.
The finalised model for quality assessment, published on 18 March, confirms the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s intention to release six tenders, worth £11 million over five years, which could see some work go to private outsourcing companies.
Most of these functions are currently undertaken by the Quality Assurance Agency, and the tendering process has been seen as a bid by Hefce to increase the amount of control that it has over standards.
The finalised proposals also reveal that Hefce intends to seek recognition as England’s official quality body – a role, required by European standards, that is currently held by the QAA.
And although Hefce has confirmed its intention to abolish repeated testing by peer review against baseline standards for established providers, which is currently part of QAA institutional reviews, the funding council now says that it intends to make quality assurance a feature of its own assurance reviews, which take place every five years and currently focus on financial management.
Hefce says that the emphasis will be on checking the evidence and processes used by governing bodies to assure standards, and that the reviews should not “become a burden on a similar scale” to a QAA visit.
But sector leaders question whether the requirements on institutions will be reduced, especially when combined with the proposed teaching excellence framework, plus the submission of annual returns on student outcomes and assurances from governing bodies to Hefce for the purposes of quality assessment.
Dave Phoenix, vice-chancellor of London South Bank University and chair of the Million+ group, said that he was “struggling to see where the savings are going to be, in terms of either time or cost”.
“I am concerned that we will end up reinventing something very similar to what we have now, but with added complexity,” he said.
Roger Brown, emeritus professor of higher education policy at Liverpool Hope University, argued that there was a conflict of interest in a funding body taking a central role in monitoring the quality of what it funded.
“This is a very clear attempt by Hefce to in effect take control of quality assessment,” he said.
Universities had been concerned by Hefce’s proposals for increased professionalisation of external examining, warning that it could create a “national inspectorate”, so the funding council no longer proposes to introduce a register of trained examiners. However, it still proposes to work with sector bodies to introduce training for providers via a tender.
Institutions’ other key concern had been around the capability of governing bodies to take a role in quality assurance, so another tender will focus on developing support for governors.
Further tenders include reviewing providers’ internal review processes on a one-off basis, investigating institutions when concerns are raised, international activities, and conducting peer reviews of new providers.
A Hefce spokeswoman said that the new system, which will be piloted next year ahead of its formal introduction in 2017-18, would “reduce the regulatory burden for established institutions”, allowing for “significant” cost savings, “particularly in terms of the academic staff time currently devoted to quality management activities”.