Plans to reduce the intensity of quality assurance reviews for some universities are an attempt to introduce “light touch” regulation by another route, experts have claimed.
Under the Higher Education Review proposals unveiled last week by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, peer review teams would complete an initial appraisal of written evidence of a university’s ability to uphold standards, which would determine the size and duration of a later institutional review.
This visit to the institution would then last between one and five days and use between two and six reviewers, depending on the outcome of the initial appraisal.
However, Roger Brown, professor of higher education policy at Liverpool Hope University and a former chief executive of the QAA’s predecessor, the Higher Education Quality Council, believes the plans are broadly similar to the “risk-based” quality assurance regime that was largely rejected by most of the sector last year.
In October, the Higher Education Funding Council for England decided to steer clear of government plans - advocated in the 2011 higher education White Paper - to scale back the frequency of reviews or to scrap them completely.
Based on its consultation with the sector, Hefce said that scheduled institutional reviews would continue to take place at least every six years for most institutions.
New higher education providers or those that had experienced problems in the past would receive visits every four years, it added.
But the QAA proposals - announced on 28 January - would represent an end to the universal full-scale inspections that currently safeguard quality, Professor Brown argued.
“It looks very like the original risk-based approach proposed [by the government] and rests on the fallacy that past good practice is a guide to future performance,” he said.
The proposed regime would not offer the protection of mandatory wholesale institutional reviews or that of a full risk-based system complete with opportunities for reviews in case of problems, he added.
“It is the worst of both worlds,” Professor Brown insisted.
However, Geoffrey Alderman, professor of politics and history at the University of Buckingham, believes the proposed regime is a sensible way to concentrate resources on those institutions most at risk of failure.
“This is risk-based quality assurance by another route…but it is inevitable and I support it,” Professor Alderman said.
“The resource implications for a full-blown audit for every institution are considerable,” he added.
“I imagine there has been pressure behind the scenes from the Russell Group institutions who say: ‘We have been going for scores, if not hundreds, of years. Do we really have to go through this rigmarole?’”
Anthony McClaran, chief executive of the QAA, said the new system would help to simplify the review process and reflected calls for a more risk- based approach.
“Tailoring the intensity of review visits will allow QAA to target its resources where they are needed most and to limit requirements on providers who are demonstrably successful in managing academic standards and quality,” he said.
The new method, due to be launched in England and Northern Ireland this autumn, would also include student reviewers and auditors from higher education sectors outside the UK, the QAA has said.
Details of the consultation, which will close on 22 April, can be found at Higher Education Review - A handbook for higher education providers: Draft for consultation.