The scrapping of the UK-wide quality system could risk a Volkswagen-style rapid destruction of the sector’s global reputation, according to the head of the nation’s quality watchdog.
Douglas Blackstock, interim chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), made the comments at the Higher and Further Education Show, a conference held in London on 14 October.
The current consultation on changes to quality assurance arrangements – following proposals by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) to scrap external, cyclical reviews in favour of a system based more on internal monitoring by universities – could see different systems emerge across the nations of the UK.
Mr Blackstock argued that there should be a UK-wide quality assurance system that is “the responsibility of a single external body, as a unifying organisation for consistency across that UK system”, but with approaches adapted to meet the different needs of the different nations.
He added: “We need to safeguard the brand of UK HE globally. We need to keep this brand that is recognised and trusted around the world. As the Volkswagen crisis has shown us recently, a brand that was built up over decades can be destroyed in a matter of days.
“Is anyone saying now seriously that in the car industry you could continue with a system of self-regulation, with no external check on vehicle emissions?”
Gordon McKenzie, GuildHE chief executive, told the conference that “removing aspects like external, independent, cyclical peer review and parts of the quality code carry the risk of destabilising our position”.
He also warned: “We do have a concern that, as the proposals stand, there is a risk of damage to international reputation and to external perceptions of quality assurance.”
In another session at the conference, Stephen Jones, deputy director of strategy and policy for higher education in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, said that no date had yet been set for the publication of the department’s Green Paper, which will outline plans for the teaching excellence framework.
He said that the Green Paper had yet to secure a date in the “grid” system that the government operates to coordinate announcements.
Mr Jones also responded to concerns about the drop in the number of Indian students coming to UK universities.
“That is absolutely high on our list of things that we are aware of,” he said. “[There will be] a meeting between Jo Johnson, James Brokenshire and the Indian High Commissioner to address some of these concerns.”