The future of the Quality Assurance Agency has been cast into doubt after the door was opened to private companies, government agencies or charities to take over much of its work to guarantee educational standards.
It follows an unprecedented move by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which announced on 7 October that it will invite external bodies to bid for work undertaken by the higher education watchdog.
Hefce will also launch a sector-wide consultation on the current suitability of quality assurance processes, despite concluding a similar exercise only two years ago.
That consultation concluded that the existing set-up was largely fit for purpose and rejected a full “risk-based” approach in which well-established universities would be assessed every 10 years.
Institutions with shorter track records, such as private providers, are now reviewed every four years, with lighter checks for most universities every six years.
In a statement, Hefce said that it wanted to develop “innovative approaches [to quality assurance] which are risk-based, proportionate, affordable, and low burden” in response to “rapid change” in higher education.
Roger Brown, emeritus professor of higher education policy at Liverpool Hope University, believed that ending QAA’s monopoly over quality reviews would lead to an “incredibly messy” system.
“Not having a single regulatory body would be a retrograde step,” said Professor Brown, who headed the QAA’s predecessor, the Higher Education Quality Council.
However, some within the sector may look favourably on doling out some of the different functions of the QAA to other agencies, such as its oversight of private colleges who wish to sponsor overseas students and its regulation of degrees in further education colleges.
“With the weight of responsibilities coming its way, the QAA cannot do everything it is expected to do without a major rethink,” said Roger King, former vice-chancellor at the University of Lincoln and a visiting professor at the University of Bath’s School of Management. Other public bodies or quality assurers from other industries might become involved, he added.
University groups, such as the Russell Group or the global network Universitas 21, could participate in the quality assurance of their members, despite concerns that they would be “too inward-looking”, Professor King added.
Current institutional reviews for many universities had also become “repetitive, almost ceremonial” and a greater focus was needed on driving up standards and measuring graduate outcomes, he added.
The potential shake-up of quality assurance follows an eventful period for the QAA in which it has faced criticisms over its ability to police the sector, in particular at private colleges, which will receive almost £1 billion of public funding this year.
In 2009, a cross-party committee of MPs said that the QAA was “toothless” and unable to drive up quality. That criticism was repeated last year when the University of Southampton successfully appealed against critical findings in a review. A second quality review has yet to take place.
Questions have also been raised about the QAA’s speed in picking up on abuse in private colleges or failures that led to the closure of the University of Wales over its validation activities.
Geoffrey Alderman, professor of politics and history at the University of Buckingham and former head of the University of London’s academic council, said change was required.
“Scandal after scandal has occurred on the QAA’s watch, so one has to ask whether the QAA is giving value for money and could it be done differently,” he said.
He added that in certain subject areas such as engineering it was possible to choose between “many different accrediting bodies”, while he also suggested that overseas assurance bodies could supervise quality in the UK.
Bahram Bekhradnia, president of the Higher Education Policy Institute, believed that a US-style system in which universities picked from a number of accreditation bodies might be feasible.
“Some bodies might have criteria for research-intensive universities, while others better understand liberal arts colleges or professional-facing universities,” said Mr Bekhradnia. However, this approach risked creating a “hierarchical mess”, he added.
Outsourcing regulatory function to private bodies could be a “serious mistake”, he also warned, saying that the QAA had done a “perfectly reasonable job” since its creation in 1997.
Hefce said the QAA would continue its current role until 2017-18 while any changes are considered.
Sir Rodney Brooke, the QAA’s chair, said that any new system should be built on “independent quality assurance and co-regulation” and should “always [be] on the side of the student”.
The current system “underpins the strong international reputation of UK higher education” and the QAA had “internationally recognised expertise in providing quality assurance and enhancement to an exceptional standard”.