QAA to enlist students to audit quality

Plan to add undergraduates to inspection teams is proving controversial, writes Rebecca Attwood.

January 10, 2008

Students will gain a formal role in determining whether universities are up to standard under plans from the Quality Assurance Agency.

The QAA wants to add students to its institutional audit teams, which examine universities and declare whether they have confidence in an institution's ability to manage standards.

Teams vary in size according to the scale of the institution being audited, but the minimum comprises three academic reviewers and a review secretary. The student reviewer's post would be added to this number.

Douglas Blackstock, the agency's director with responsibility for student engagement, said: "The QAA sees students as active participants in the learning process. This means they will make valuable contributions to quality assurance.

"The model of introducing student membership of institutional audit teams is increasingly becoming the norm across Europe." The proposed extension of membership of audit teams in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to students follows the introduction of student reviewers in Scotland in 2002.

Roger Brown, co-director of the Centre for Higher Education Research and Development at Liverpool Hope University and a former head of the QAA's predecessor, the Higher Education Quality Council, said that if he were still a vice-chancellor he would decline to have his institution audited by such a team.

"Auditors are or should be senior academics or administrators who can engage on equal terms with senior management in institutions. However well prepared and trained, students can never be peers in that sense. I believe that there is a real risk that audit will be devalued."

Kel Fidler, vice-chancellor of Northumbria University, said student auditors would "muddy further the waters" of the assessment process, which already lacked independence.

From this spring, students have been invited to act as observers on a number of audits. They will report back with suggestions on training needs and on what students can contribute to audits.

The QAA plans more consultation with the sector. Details are yet to be finalised, but the student reviewers are likely to be a mixture of undergraduates, postgraduates and sabbatical officers, who will be involved in one or two audits a year.

In Scotland, student reviewers are paid Pounds 2,420 - the same fee as other reviewers. Student reviewers, as full members of the team, have equal responsibility for every aspect of the audit, but they usually focus on student experience.

Wes Streeting, vice-president for education at the National Union of Students, said he strongly supported the plan.

"If the higher education sector is serious about quality enhancement, we need to ensure that students are involved at every stage in the cycle. The Scottish experience gives a strong indication that student engagement in audit would add significant value to the process."

The proposal is part of a wider strategy to build QAA engagement with students.

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com.

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