Steps to quality assurance

October 25, 1996

Roger Brown, in a speech to the Managing Universities programme, assesses progress

The publication of the draft final report of the Joint Planning Group and its acceptance by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, as well as by the Higher Education Council for England and the secretary of state for education and employment, is a major step towards developing an external quality assurance regime which meets the key requirements of external stakeholders while minimising demands on institutions.

As a result of the JPG, we now have a basis for planning future UK-wide quality assurance arrangements. We have explicit recognition of the evaluation of teaching and learning, institutional management of quality, enhancement and networking, and peer review as the core building blocks in quality assurance.

We have the outline of a comprehensive process covering all aspects of teaching and learning and embracing academic standards, research degrees and diplomas, and all forms of collaborative provision. We have the possibility of a greater degree of transparency. We have the prospect of an integrated process with a closer alignment between this process and institutions' internal procedures. This should lead to a greater cost-effectiveness and value for money for the resources devoted to protecting quality. And a start has been made in aligning all these arrangements with the accreditation processes of the professional and statutory bodies.

We also have the prospect of a single agency which will be responsible for all aspects of quality assurance in higher education, and which will provide a single authoritative source of information on quality and standards in British higher education. We have agreement that the agency will need to discharge a range of functions, and not only the design and delivery of the new process, if it is to fulfil its overall remit effectively. While the agency will be representative of the main interests in British higher education, it will also enjoy a degree of independence in the way it goes about its work. The JPG report recognises that what has emerged from the group's discussion is more a blueprint than an operational manual, and that a number of important matters remain to be taken forward by the new agency. Some of these would have arisen anyway as part of the natural evolution of the existing processes of assessment and audit. There are five main ones.

u The specification of the new process presents several crucial questions, including the coverage of each element in the new process (subject/programme area and institution-wide reviews), how these should interrelate, and how the new process will include academic standards, and also research degrees and diplomas.

The issue of how academic standards should be handled is very complex. How will the comments and judgements of reviewers be related to those of internal and external examiners? Will individual reviewers be left to make their own comments and judgements unaided, or will there be an overall framework? If so, on what will it be based? As the JPG report indicates, Higher Education Quality Council's graduate standards programme should help here, although the conclusions of this have still to be implemented.

u The application of the new process has two aspects. First, the extent to which funding and accrediting bodies outside higher education will buy into the new process, thus reducing the number of separate demands on institutions arising from existing arrangements.

Second, whether the new process will be applied in the same way to all institutions, subjects and aspects of provision, or whether there will be some degree of selectivity, and if so on what basis. This is bound up with the uses to which the process and its outcomes will be put by institutions, on the one hand, and by funding and accrediting bodies, on the other.

u Then there is the question of balance between the functions of the new agency. It has been agreed that the agency will take over all the functions of the HEQC together with the main assessment functions of the participating funding councils.

The supervision and resourcing of the new quality assurance process will be a major agency function but it is not the only one. The JPG rightly lays considerable stress on quality enhancement. What should be the balance between this aspect of the agency's work and its other main function of accountability? All past experience suggests that it is very difficult to get an optimal balance between the two.

u How will the agency ensure that institutions "come into line'' where there is evidence of practices which it regards as unacceptable or "deficient''? How will the agency encourage the academic community collectively and external stakeholders to address wider challenges to quality and standards? How far will it be able to take a strategic view of the quality assurance needs of the sector?

u There remains the question of resources. There is a widespread expectation of savings as compared with existing arrangements at least after allowing for transitional and development costs. At the same time, as the JPG report recognises, there are aspects of the new process which are likely to increase costs. The new agency may be faced with some very difficult decisions at a very early stage as to how best to deploy its resources of staff, money and expertise between its various activities.

It will be doing so in an environment which will be changing rapidly, as the report again acknowledges. The existing programmes of assessment and audit will continue to throw up questions for institutions and their stakeholders.

The initial conclusions of the Dearing Committee will be known in the spring, and there will be a change of government by the summer. All this reinforces the need to maintain the momentum established by the JPG if the timescale for the new arrangements is to be met. Quality assurance will occupy us for quite a while yet.

Roger Brown is chief executive of the Higher Education Quality Council.

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