Quality checks in HE ‘being done on the cheap’, says thinktank

Paper from Social Market Foundation calls on government to either invest more or trust universities on providing information   

November 19, 2020
No money in purse
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The Westminster government gives the impression of “trying to do quality assessment on the cheap” and needs to invest much more if it wants to properly safeguard standards, a new paper argues.

According to a briefing paper from the Social Market Foundation thinktank, the government spends just £2 per student on assessing quality through the teaching excellence framework compared with £15 per pupil on school inspections.

It calls on the government to either spend the “money, time and energy” that it would take build more “effective quality assessment” or trust universities themselves to provide course information.

The paper comes in a week where England’s higher education regulator, the Office for Students, announced new proposals to “raise the bar” on quality and Universities UK said that it would establish a charter on tackling low-quality courses.

However, the SMF paper argues that the government – which has put tackling quality and standards at the heart of its higher education policy rhetoric – had to take a much wider view of what it was trying to achieve and invest accordingly.

“The impression given, sometimes, is that the government is trying to do quality assessment on the cheap,” the paper says, pointing out that schools inspectorate Ofsted has a budget of £130 million a year. In contrast, it says higher education’s Quality Assurance Agency spent £14 million last year and is funded by providers while the TEF costs about £3 million to run “and even that is resented to an extent”.

“Assessing quality is unlikely to be done well on the cheap. A more effective quality assessment is likely to cost money, time and energy. The question for the government is whether it is enough of a priority to merit such investment,” the paper, which was sponsored by sector body GuildHE, adds.

It says that options for improving the assessment of courses could include beefing up the external examining of results or even standardising some courses, although it acknowledges that this latter approach would be “highly challenging”.

Whether there is wider reform or not, the paper says that government must at least recognise that indicators such as graduate employment data or student satisfaction surveys have major problems.

It points out that it “often takes five to 10 years for the economic value of a degree to become apparent, and sometimes even longer” so “outcomes for students who studied a particular course 10 years or even longer ago may be a poor guide to the effectiveness of the course today”.

Aveek Bhattacharya, chief economist at the SMF and author of the paper, said: “Assessing the quality of higher education is anything but straightforward. It requires difficult and often controversial judgements about the purpose of our universities.

“Done well, quality assessments can help inform students and parents perhaps even lead to an improvement in university courses and value for money. But at present there is a sense that it is all being done on the cheap.”

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

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