In the second of our series on access initiatives, Harriet Swain looks at how quality is assured
QUALITY watchdogs have acted quickly to ensure government efforts to improve access to higher education do not lower standards.
Talks are taking place between the Quality Assurance Agency and Higher Education Statistics Agency about how to improve data on access students' progression to university and their success once there.
A new strategy document, to be published by the QAA later this year, will stress how important the kitemarked access to higher education courses are in helping under-represented students make it to university.
And next spring the QAA, which has taken over these duties from the Higher Education Quality Council, will launch a new cycle of reviews of access course validating agencies.
Kath Dentith, the QAA's assistant director (access), said: "If the access movement is to progress we need a firm statistical basis and that means being much more rigorous in collecting data."
As well as the QAA's work, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service has set up a database, explaining what is involved in more than 1,000 registered access programmes.
Started in April, and including details about contact hours, assessment levels, modules and links with other institutions, this is designed to help university admissions officers assess the value of different courses cited in students' application forms.
Evidence about the quality of access to higher education courses has so far been lacking.
But this has not stopped regular scare stories accusing them of bringing in underqualified students. In this they have often been lumped together with other kinds of courses designed to get more people from non-traditional backgrounds into university, such as year zero or foundation-year courses run by individual institutions.
Fuss over foundation years reached a crescendo three years ago, when the then secretary of state for education and employment, Gillian Shephard, demanded an inquiry into whether they were giving A-level failures a backdoor route to university.
The report, produced quickly by the HEQC, showed most foundation courses did not accept people who had failed A levels and nearly all were rigorous in checking the quality of the students who completed, with only between 55 and 75 per cent of students actually progressing to university.
Unlike access courses, foundation years are required by the Department for Education and Employment to be an integral part of the degree programme. They are therefore subject to the usual degree course inspections run by the QAA.
Foundation years or years zero run by further education colleges are also subject to extra assessments, under quality processes for collaborative links, and are therefore more thoroughly inspected than many other programmes.