The Quality Assurance Agency is set to retain a key role in monitoring standards in English higher education, after preferred bidders for the work were announced.
The QAA looks likely to secure four of six tenders being offered by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, with one each being taken by the Higher Education Academy and the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education.
The QAA currently undertakes reviews of English universities’ performance against baseline standards, but Hefce is abolishing these exercises and taking responsibility for monitoring standards in-house, drawing on assurances from governing bodies and evidence from annual institutional data returns.
However, the four tenders set to be secured by the QAA will see it retain responsibility for reviewing providers hoping to enter the higher education sector, and the agency will also undertake a one-off verification of all providers’ suitability to monitor their own standards.
The other two tenders going to the QAA will see it undertake investigations into providers about which concerns are raised, and keep responsibility for English universities’ international activities.
The Leadership Foundation’s tender focuses on supporting governing bodies to be able to monitor standards in their institution, with the HEA being given responsibility for improving training for external examiners and exploring the comparability of degree standards between institutions.
Hefce had reportedly approached private companies to bid for quality assessment work, but none was among the successful bidders.
The results of the tendering process, which applies in part to Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, are provisional at the moment but will be confirmed at the end of a voluntary standstill period.
Douglas Blackstock, the QAA’s chief executive, said that he was pleased that the agency had been chosen “to deliver substantial elements of the new model for quality assessment”.
“We look forward to working closely with Hefce, the Leadership Foundation and the HEA to deliver the revised operating model for quality assessment,” Mr Blackstock said.
Alison Johns, chief executive of the Leadership Foundation, said: “Our approach will be to work closely with the sector to ensure that the new arrangements meet their needs in an holistic way. We look forward to working with Hefce, the QAA and the Higher Education Academy to deliver the revised model.”
The HEA’s chief executive, Stephanie Marshall, said that the organisation was “delighted” to have been provisionally awarded the tender given that “external examining is one of the most distinctive features of UK higher education”.
“The HEA project to design and pilot different approaches to the training of external examiners is designed to ensure that external examining remains fit for purpose in a rapidly changing higher education landscape,” she added.
Concerns have been raised that the revised quality assessment system will give too much power to Hefce, which intends to make quality part of its own assurance reviews, which take place every five years.
Critics have questioned whether the burden on providers will be reduced, or whether it simply represents a shift of responsibility from the QAA to Hefce.