'Radical change' is needed to reassure public on standards

Hefce report places communication at heart of proposals to build trust. Rebecca Attwood writes

October 1, 2009

External examiners would be interviewed by inspection teams and universities would give a clear indication of the number of hours they expect students to study under plans to boost public confidence in the quality of higher education.

A new "public-facing" role for the Quality Assurance Agency and an independent channel for external examiners to report concerns are also among the wide-ranging proposals published in a report to the Higher Education Funding Council for England on 1 October.

Hefce's Teaching, Quality and the Student Experience sub-committee, chaired by Colin Riordan, vice-chancellor of the University of Essex, was set up to investigate concerns about standards raised last year.

Its key message is that while there is "no systemic failure" in the sector, allegations of poor quality pose a serious risk to its reputation, and "radical change" is required in the way that information about quality and standards is communicated.

In future, universities that fail to provide adequate information to the public about courses could receive a "limited confidence" or "no confidence" judgment from the QAA.

External examiners

Professor Riordan says that the external-examiner system, now being reviewed by Universities UK, is "nothing like as dysfunctional as some would have us believe", but would benefit from more powers.

The report calls for more scrutiny of externals' views during institutional audits, for the sector to agree a common job description, and for a mechanism that lets externals raise concerns independently if they are unhappy with university responses.

John Selby, director of education and participation at Hefce, said: "In a minority of cases ... where external examiners have had some issues they think the institution has not addressed well enough, they have felt they have nowhere else to go."

If audit panels also interviewed external examiners, this would "send a very public signal that they are taken very seriously", Dr Selby added.

Contact time and learning hours

The report admits that staff-student contact hours in the UK are shorter than they are elsewhere, but says it does not follow that standards are lower.

It argues that universities should publish information on the nature and amount of staff contact that students can expect, the learning effort expected, the time this will take, and the academic support likely to be available.

It adds that universities should make clear the rationale for individual courses' contact hours and how they relate to other resources.

"If the sector is serious about defending the diversity and distinctiveness of its teaching, it must provide robust and comparable information about what students can expect," the report says.

The report warns that otherwise, "fewer contact hours may cause students - particularly international students - to consider that their degrees represent poor value for money", and could lead to the perception that English degrees are inferior.

Audit method

The report says that institutional audits have "many strengths", but that audit reports are technical and of limited use to a wider audience. In addition, the QAA's communication style is criticised as "inaccessible" to the general public.

Anthony McClaran, the new chief executive of the QAA, said that in future the agency had to use "language that people can understand". But he added: "It would be wrong for the QAA simply to become part of a marketing effort for British higher education. Its independence must mean that when it finds elements that are not satisfactory, it is able to comment on them."

The report adds that the six-year audit cycle allows problems to go unaddressed for too long, and that in future audit should be able to respond to concerns when they arise. The current cycle comes to an end in 2011.

Dr Selby said he did not expect a revised system to increase red tape: "Increasing the audit burden is no guarantee that you are doing anything to raise quality. This is about designing a system that is effective and secures public confidence."


IF IT AIN'T BROKE ... QAA rejects MPs' criticisms

MPs' calls for radical reform of the Quality Assurance Agency would create a "monolithic" higher education system that would stifle pedagogic creativity, the standards watchdog has said.

This summer, a report from the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee declared the system for safeguarding university standards "unfit".

But in its official response this week, the QAA said that the current regime, under which the main responsibility for academic standards rests with individual institutions, with the watchdog checking their work, remains "the best and most cost-effective" approach.

With 40,000 higher education courses in England alone, it is "unrealistic" to expect an annual assessment of the standards of each by an external agency, the QAA added.

Most allegations made through the QAA's "causes for concern" procedure "turned out to be personal-grievance cases" that were ineligible for inquiry, the agency said.

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