In its response to the Dearing and Garrick reports, the government set the Quality Assurance Agency the task of piecing together a new system for checking standards in higher education. In March, the QAA's chief executive John Randall published its consultation paper, An Agenda for Quality, outlining six interlocking proposals for building the new scheme. Even before consultation was completed on May 22, the QAA was re-thinking its plans, a leaked internal document has revealed. Tony Tysome looks at the original proposals, the rethink and action taken so far
Original proposals: The task of creating new national higher education qualifications frameworks (one for Scotland and another for the rest of the UK) is the key piece in the Quality Assurance Agency's new quality "jigsaw".
Frameworks proposed in the Dearing and Garrick reports would create a climbing frame of higher education levels within which qualifications could be positioned.
Dearing proposed eight levels, starting at HNC/HND, higher education certificate and NVQ level 3, and going up to doctorate and NVQ level 5.
Progress so far: Work on postgraduate qualifications is already under way as a result of the 1996 Harris review. The QAA set up a steering group to clear up confusion over the names and levels of postgraduate qualifications. It is now preparing a discussion paper. Meanwhile, national agreements on credit accumulation have been reached.
The QAA has set up qualifications framework development groups for Scotland and the rest of the UK. It is also working with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to ensure higher and lower level frameworks match up.
Internal document: Nothing about the qualifications frameworks. But John Randall, QAA chief executive, told a recent lifelong learning seminar that university courses should be "closely mapped" to the National Vocational Qualifications framework. He outlined a a future where mature working students "dip in and out" of different university courses, building up units of learning. Unitised undergraduate degree programmes, linked to a national qualifications framework, would create new entry and exit points.
Original proposals: Institutions should provide students, employers and quality watchdogs withclearer descriptionsof the content and aims of courses. These descriptions will have to be fitted into a standard format, known as a"template". This has sections in which the main purposes and distinctive features of a course must be spelled out, including what a graduate should know and be able to do on completion; intellectual, practical, personal and social qualities promoted by the course; the main subjects, levels, credits and qualifications covered and awarded; and assessments carried out.
Progress so far: Three different templates were created in 1997 to illustrate the principles of course design and developed in a project by academics in 20 institutions. The QAA says field tests show templates can be applied to any programme where the curriculum and learning experience can be predicted. Where this is not the case it would be possible to complete part of the template or replace it with learning contracts for each student linked to a personal progress file, the agency says.
Internal document: Academic "reporters", drawing on the experience of registered external examiners, could judge whether the objectives set out in templates have been achieved. The reports would be made public.
Original proposals: Dearing and Garrick proposed that standards should be more clearly defined. The QAA plans to do this by spelling out the abilities and attributes expected of graduates to achieve a degree pass. These qualities would be different in each subject. "Subject benchmarking" is the term used by the QAA to describe the task of defining what is expected. The minimum levels of achievement needed to pass are called "threshold standards". Registered external examiners will use guides written by benchmarking groups for each subject to check and compare standards. According to the QAA, benchmark information is likely to be "at a fairly high level of generality". In most subjects, it will focus on graduates' abilities and attributes but, where professional bodies are involved, "it may be necessary to include references to curriculum content".
Progress so far: Subject benchmarking groups have developed threshold standards in chemistry, history and law. These are being piloted until September in Scotland and Wales. More groups will follow if the pilots prove successful. Benchmarking groups will refine information over a three-year development period.
Internal document: Academic "reporters", rather than registered external examiners, will check whether threshold standards are being achieved. The standards could be used to decide whether institutions qualify to bid for extra funding. Alternatively, institutions could be rewarded financially if their programmes were judged to have significantly exceeded the standards.
Original proposals: The QAA has drawn up a draft list of 41 subject areas for checking standards and setting out what graduates should know and be able to do. Considerably fewer than 40 would have meant being so general that very little information would be provided. Significantly more than 40 would provide more specific information but would run the risk of promoting a national curriculum.
Progress so far: In the draft list of subject areas subjects that "may reasonably be expected to share some generic features" have been grouped together. But the QAA says it recognises some larger subject areas may need to be broken up into sub-groups when deciding what standards are expected. A map has been produced showing how its chosen subject areas relate to UCAS subjects and quality assessment units.
Internal document: Nothing about defining subject areas.
Original proposals: Institutions should nominate two or more examiners in each subject area to report to the agency as registered external examiners.Their job would be to check standards and the level of awards and that course objectives are being achieved. They would consider curriculum design and content, students' learning experience, assessment and resources.
Such a system would represent major changes and two variants are suggested:
*External examiners would continue to report to institutions on standards,and the QAA would get the reports *"Academic reviewers" appointed by the QAA would work with institutional review teams to scrutinise course quality. The reviewers would work closely with the external examiners. There would be no need for an external subject review team.
Progress so far: The consultation paper acknowledged concerns about the proposed registered external examiner role and recognises the need to run a trial.
Internal document: The QAA appears to be heading for a system based on the second variant outlined in the consultation paper. The key difference is that external examiners would not report directly to the QAA. This job would be given to "academic reporters" appointed by the agency. They would draw on the experience of the external examiners to decide whether threshold standards and programme objectives were being achieved. They would produce periodic reports for publication.
CODES OF PRACTICE
Original proposals: Following the advice of Dearing and Garrick, the QAA plans to write codes of practice for institutions to follow. These will cover quality assurance, public information and standards; student support and guidance; overseas students; collaborative provision; and postgraduate work.
The codes will need to be "universally valid and applicable". The QAA intends to do this by focusing on results, rather than on how these results are achieved. Application of codes will be monitored by review every five to six years.
Progress so far: The QAA has decided on a single comprehensive code with discrete sections covering a wide range of services and provision. It will state minimum expectations in each area.
Internal document: Institutions with good-quality assurance systems could be treated with a "lighter touch" and get less frequent institutional reviews.
The reviews could cover three areas:
*Degree awarding. An audit of the institution's arrangements for granting degrees.
*Good practice. An assessment of whether institutions have arrangements to fulfil expectations spelled out in the codes of practice, classified as appropriate, inadequate or exemplary.
*Quality of teaching and learning. This could be assessed by institutions' own quality assurance systems. Institutions might be encouraged to review teaching and learning against factors now used for teaching quality assessment. How well they do this could be checked by the QAA. The result would be an assessment of the confidence in these internal reviews. If confidence was low, a programme might have to be assessed by the QAA.