QAA forced to beef up blueprint

September 25, 1998

Top officials from the Quality Assurance Agency breathed a sigh of relief this week as the funding councils signed up to the broad principles of their blueprint.

QAA chief executive John Randall said that definitive quality assurance framework plans will be published in about three weeks.

But the QAA has been forced by funding chiefs to toughen up plans for policing higher education standards.

The funding councils, concerned that the framework may not be robust enough to secure value for money from public funds, signed up only after the QAA agreed to pay more attention to institutions deemed to be a high risk.

This would provide a counter-balance to the light touch favoured by institutions, which have complained about potential attacks on their autonomy.

Nevertheless, the Higher Education Funding Council for England made clear that more work was needed before it would fully endorse the framework.

A spokesman said: "We are broadly satisfied that the QAA proposals are moving in the right direction, and we welcome many aspects of them. But there is much detailed work to be done. We look forward to further close discussions with the QAA."

The Welsh and Scottish funding councils are expected to issue a joint statement with HEFCE.

Mr Randall conceded that some detail needed to be finalised, but said that most of the fine-tuning would be done during piloting which will begin next month. The full regime should be in place in Scotland by next year, he said.

Last week, Mr Randall told a conference that he hardly "dared" to phone HEFCE for the results of its board meeting discussions on the framework. He said then that the exact timing of the framework depended on "how much final horse-trading there is to be done".

The funding councils, which have a statutory obligation to assess the quality being paid for with public money, criticised the proposals for being too soft but Mr Randall emphasised that the QAA would "take a forthright view" when institutions were failing.

A key change from the consultation document is a new emphasis on risk. The flipside of a "lighter touch" for institutions with proven track records would be a concentration of resources on high-risk institutions. The QAA must not "try to do everything, all of the time, too often" but should "begin to identify what might be generally accepted as areas of risk".

Universities with the largest budgets, the most complicated franchising arrangements and collaborative provision, a lot of modular courses or a high volume of provision would all fall into the high-risk category, he said. An institution's history and the number of complaints from students would also be considered.

In a key concession to the universities, which attacked the original proposals over increased bureaucracy, Mr Randall said that there would be an "integrated approach" to inspections. Subject assessments and institutional audits would be tied together by a team of "academic reviewers", and institutions would be able to negotiate inspection timetables.

Negotiations with rebel Cambridge, Edinburgh and Glasgow universities, will resume once the full proposals are published.

THE QUALITY FRAMEWORK

The QAA will focus on three key areas: Overall academic management, particularly in the awarding of qualifications

Quality of opportunity for the student, including teaching, the learning environment and resources.

Achievement ofstandards in individual programmes Bureaucracy: There will be the "minimum burden" on institutions. Subject assessments and institutional audits, will be covered in one inspection timed to fit in with internal reviews.

External examiners: The QAA has dropped plans for external examiners reporting directly to it.

Academic reviewers: In one week-long visit, three reviewers will report on whetherspecific subjectprogrammes have achieved intendedoutcomes; assess the quality of the learning opportunity; andcollect evidence tobe used to report on the quality of aninstitution as a whole.

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