QAA's new riff on student feedback: positive notes or waves of jargon?

Sector experts cool on 'bureaucratic' engagement plans proposed by watchdog. Jack Grove reports

April 12, 2012

Plans to involve students more heavily in quality assurance have been criticised for introducing unnecessary "jargon-encrusted" bureaucracy to universities.

As part of a revamp of its guidelines for good practice, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education is drawing up new recommendations on "student engagement".

In the new draft chapter within the QAA's "quality code", which sets down "expectations" of higher education providers, the watchdog puts forward seven requirements to ensure students are involved in systems protecting quality within universities.

All seven "indicators" of good practice will help "higher education providers take deliberate steps to engage students, individually and collectively, as partners to enhance their learning experience", it says.

For instance, procedures should be developed to ensure students are told how their responses to surveys have led to improvements within universities - thereby "closing the feedback loop".

It also suggests that the "results of student questionnaires, external examiners' reports and reports from professional, statutory and regulatory bodies" should be provided to student representatives to foster a "mutual sharing of information".

But Peter Williams, the QAA's former chief executive, questioned why the new rules were needed.

"'Student engagement' seems to be an attempt to transfer responsibility for the quality of teaching, as well as learning, to students in the name of 'partnership'," he said.

"Most students of my close acquaintance expect their courses to have been properly designed before they start.

"They also expect them to be properly organised and provided. This is what they are paying for.

"I think it is entirely right that students are consulted about the efficiency and effectiveness of their courses and that sensible ideas and criticism are met with a serious response. They don't need a new bureaucracy to achieve this.

"This doesn't require a new piece of jargon-encrusted process [called] 'student engagement' - it should be a routine part of professional academic business."

Roger Brown, professor of higher education policy at Liverpool Hope University and a former head of the QAA's predecessor, the Higher Education Quality Council, also questioned the plans. "Students are not at university to be involved in quality assurance - they are there to learn," he said.

However, Paul Ramsden, visiting professor at the Institute of Education, University of London, believed that greater student involvement with their courses could be a powerful force for improvement.

"Universities that do well are those that understand that the quality of students' experience is linked to the extent they feel they are involved with their course and how they much they can influence it," said Professor Ramsden, a former chief executive of the Higher Education Academy. "It is part of [students'] responsibilities to be involved in (improving) their course for them and for future generations."

The QAA's Cathy Kerfoot, who is leading on the student engagement reforms, said: "Students are developing as active partners in their education, not just passive learners.

"Student engagement is increasingly taking centre stage. For it to count, institutions need to provide genuine opportunities for students to influence their learning environment, and to act on the issues that are important to them."

The consultation on the new draft chapter closes on 18 April.

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