QAA chief: do not ignore support for peer review

The UK’s “internationally admired system of peer review” should remain part of any future higher education quality assurance system, the head of the sector’s standards watchdog has said.

June 12, 2015
Quality Assurance Agency chief executive Anthony McClaran
Source: QAA

In a speech at the Quality Assurance Agency’s annual conference in Leeds on 11 June, the organisation’s chief executive, Anthony McClaran, said that there “continues to be very strong support for peer review…as a widely respected approach” to maintaining academic standards in universities.

His comments follow the leak of draft proposals on the future of quality assurance that suggest that universities would no longer undergo institutional reviews every six years.

Under the new “risk-based” system, established providers of higher education would instead be monitored by the Higher Education Funding Council for England every five years using annual data on student outcomes, such as dropout rates or student satisfaction scores.

The finalised proposals are expected to be published later this month and follow a sector-wide consultation on how to overhaul quality assurance practices from 2017-18.

Mr McClaran said that he supported the principle of a risk-based regulatory system that is “independent, proportionate, flexible, and which protects the interests of our students in gaining an excellent learning experience, wherever and however they study”.

But he hinted that the end of periodic peer review, replaced with checks from within Hefce, would be a mistake.

“Our future framework should retain what the higher education sector has confirmed works well: shared responsibility for quality and standards, respect for institutional autonomy, an internationally admired system of peer review and, crucially, student-centredness,” he said.

He added that a Universities UK report, led by Simon Gaskell, principal of Queen Mary University of London and published in February, had endorsed the existing processes as “as an example of good practice in co-regulation”.

That report goes on to “emphasise the importance of maintaining separate, independent quality assurance to protect this principle of co-regulation”, rather than having a state regulator, he said.

“So in this changing landscape, QAA works with the sector, providing external quality assurance whilst recognising that the primary responsibility for quality and standards lies with providers themselves,” he said.

He also refuted the accusation that the QAA imposed a large amount of regulatory burden on institutions and stifled innovation.

“We were pleased that the Competition and Markets Authority, in its report on regulation earlier this year, explicitly stated that the Quality Code was not a barrier to innovation in course design and programme provision,” he said.

“One gets the impression this was not for want of looking for evidence to the contrary,” he added.

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