New arrangements for quality assurance and the teaching excellence framework should form a “single overall system” to avoid “unnecessary bureaucracy and duplication”, the chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England has said.
Madeleine Atkins said there needed to be “alignment and synergy if not outright integration” between the two regimes, acknowledging concerns that English universities risked returning to the dual structure of quality checks and audits that spanned the 1990s.
Speaking at a consultation event on Hefce’s plans for a risk-based system of quality assurance, which would see regular institutional reviews by the Quality Assurance Agency abolished and universities monitored via analysis of student academic outcomes instead, Professor Atkins said that the government’s subsequent announcement of the TEF meant that the relationship between the two needed to be carefully considered.
In the face of deep cuts in government funding, “no one can afford unnecessary bureaucracy and duplication. Alignment and synergy if not outright integration are crucial,” she said. “There needs to be one overall system.”
Since the new quality assurance arrangements and the TEF are both likely to be based on metrics, Professor Atkins said that it looked “like common sense to collect data going to be used for measurement and judgement just once, rather than twice”.
She revealed that Hefce was now working with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, alongside the QAA and the Higher Education Academy, to advise on the design of a “good single overall system”.
Such a system had to be “cost-effective”, hold the “full confidence of the sector and the student body” and operate in a way that “encourages rather than stifles” innovation, Professor Atkins said.
She also noted that the government announcement that universities offering high-quality teaching would be allowed to increase fees with inflation from 2017-18 had been interpreted as a reference to the TEF. As a result, she said, assessments would probably need to be made by spring 2016.
In light of this there may need to be a “short-term solution” for 2017-18, and a longer period in which a combined quality assurance and TEF system could be piloted, she said.
Professor Atkins went on to outline hypothetical scenarios in which the two regimes could co-exist. One option would be to allow institutions that met baseline quality assurance requirements to take part in a small-scale TEF that would name a few as “excellent” based on their overall performance.
Another option would be to have a much broader TEF sitting above quality assurance, allowing universities to be judged as excellent in certain subjects or even particular practices, such as their use of digital technology in teaching. Alternatively, the quality assurance and TEF processes could operate alongside each other, Professor Atkins suggested.
Attendees at the event, held on 23 July, debated whether a set of TEF metrics could be created that reflected diverse institutional missions, disciplines and forms of study, while still giving the simplicity and differentiation that the government desires.
Concerns were also raised that students would be deterred from activities related to the TEF or curriculum development, for fear that improved institutional performance would lead to tuition fees being increased.