QAA and Hefce set out contrasting visions on quality

A UK-wide, co-regulatory system is pitched by the QAA at its annual conference while Hefce focuses on changes needed for England's market regime

April 18, 2016
Two bananas: one yellow, one brown

The higher education sector and politicians back a continued UK-wide quality system, the Quality Assurance Agency's chief executive has claimed in a speech to its annual conference.

The future of the QAA, which held its conference at the University of Birmingham last week, has been placed in question by a new operating model for quality assurance set in motion by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

Hefce has put elements of work currently undertaken by the QAA out to competitive tender, with private firms such as Tribal and Capita said to have been approached to see if they would bid.

Speeches at the QAA conference from Douglas Blackstock, the QAA chief executive, and Susan Lapworth, Hefce director for regulation and assurance, considered future scenarios.

Mr Blackstock stressed the QAA’s achievements, pointing to its collaborative work with the sector and students, to its international relationships that he said had helped UK universities advance their transnational education, and to its “unique” relationships with “around 600 providers of all types”.

He also told the audience: “You’re probably aware that some of the work we currently do has been subject to competitive procurement. So if you’ll forgive me, I won’t comment on how QAA might approach this so that we won’t provide any advantage to our commercial competitors.”

The QAA’s response to the Green Paper had included an emphasis on “ensuring that quality assurance, Tier 4 compliance and the teaching excellence framework are all effectively integrated”, Mr Blackstock said.

And he said that in any higher education legislation, the QAA “would hope to see a clearly defined remit" for the proposed Office for Students, “including how it will work with extant UK-wide bodies such as QAA and Hesa, reflecting the widespread support across the sector and the political spectrum for the maintenance of UK-wide higher education agencies and a strong UK-wide educational brand”.

Ms Lapworth expressed gratitude for the invitation to speak at the conference, acknowledging that the circumstances were “a bit odd”.

She highlighted the impending new regime of market entry for new providers, and of market exit.

“The new approach to quality assessment fits within this broader regulatory context,” she said.

She added that regulatory changes signalled in the Green Paper are “not simply about regulating these new providers a bit more while leaving the traditional sector to carry on pretty much as it’s always done. This signals change for everyone.”

The Green Paper’s requirement to focus on the student interest in regulation meant providing information to them on aspects including quality and financial health of institutions, Ms Lapworth continued. “I think this makes it impossible to separate out the scrutiny of quality from other regulatory scrutiny,” she said.

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