Still stuck on the audit wheel, and we could do with a credence revival

As Whitehall mulls reducing quality assurance, Hefce seems to be calling for more. Simeon Underwood is tired of the same old song

July 19, 2012

Credit: James Fryer

At a meeting two weeks ago a senior colleague opined - it is the kind of comment one opines rather than says - "Hefce needs to regulate more before it is in a position to regulate less". The rest of us nodded sagely, and wished we had said that. But thinking about it later on in relation to my own specialist subject of teaching quality assurance, I saw a catch. How does one know when the Higher Education Funding Council for England has done enough "more" and can start to do "less"?

Hefce recently produced a paper with the pithy title "A risk-based approach to quality assurance: consultation" (I will admit that this has been in my briefcase for so long that it has its own season ticket). The paper shows the bind Hefce is now in.

In its 2011 White Paper, the government talked, loosely, even dangerously, about "achieving very substantial deregulatory change for institutions that demonstrate low risk" in this area - not just deregulatory change, not just substantial deregulatory change, but very substantial deregulatory change.

By contrast, some sector gurus have argued that the new fees regime demands more regulation, not less.

And what do the universities think? I think we accept that quality assurance is necessary. Everyone should do it. But some of us have been at it for a quarter of a century. For the old, non-Council for National Academic Awards universities, the Reynolds reports, covering various quality assurance topics (and which led directly to the creation of the Committee of Vice-chancellors and Principals Academic Audit Unit), came out in the late 1980s. Hefce got its orders under the Further and Higher Education Act of 1992. The Quality Assurance Agency's quality infrastructure and code of practice grew out of the Dearing report of 1997.

Unlike the new private institutions, some universities have now done five or six institutional audits, under slightly different names and to slightly different rules, in 20 years, all with decent outcomes. Surely the law of diminishing returns starts to apply. Will we ever be allowed off the treadmill?

So where has Hefce positioned itself in the document I mentioned a few paragraphs ago? Sadly, with the sector gurus calling for more regulation.

The document says that institutional audit/review is successful and should form the heart of any future system. It then floats, rather half-heartedly, the idea that institutions with a good track record might go through it at intervals of up to 10 years. Having done so, it goes on to hint that this is a Bad Idea, and makes clear its preference for an interval of six or seven years - which is not far off what we have got now.

It also adds new features: a modular element in the review process; an annual data review exercise; out-of-cycle "interventions" based on complaints submitted to the QAA and on indicators arising from the data review; and more besides.

In the words of Creedence Clearwater Revival, "Big wheel keep on turnin'". No time off for good behaviour. Not even jam tomorrow.

But this isn't about risk analysis, not even as Hefce itself asks universities to do it - for example, there is no attempt to do a matrix of risk, times likelihood, times impact; no use of the concepts of gross and net risk.

So if Hefce were to try to respond to the government's call for "very substantial deregulation" for institutions with good track records, what might it do?

It could limit the scope of audit. The primary concern should surely be academic standards. Yes, "stakeholders" need to find out about "the quality of student learning opportunities": but they can do so from many other sources. Yes, enhancement matters: but the universities, as supposedly autonomous bodies, are capable of deciding for themselves where to focus their effort.

It could vary the intensity of the audits - shorter visits to some places, with shorter agendas. Instead, it has asked the QAA to look at intensity. With respect, the QAA's track record on deregulation - except in 2001 when it spiked a second round of subject-level inspection (possibly under external pressure) - does not meet most people's definition of minimising administrative burden.

It could drop the mid-cycle review, save where an audit report is poor to the point that it is actually needed.

It could allow universities to apply the QAA infrastructure selectively. So they could do programme specifications describing intended learning outcomes only where they think them useful for their own purposes. Or they could decide what processes they need for programme monitoring and review according to their self-confidence and cultures.

It could ask people outside the QAA to consider how much of its academic infrastructure is actually needed. Large swathes of its code of practice are covered by guidance by other bodies who know the areas better.

It could tell the QAA to slow down the endless cycle of review and renewal.

These aren't wild suggestions, and it wouldn't take much imagination to come up with more.

The consultation paper is a missed opportunity. Hefce hasn't even taken the risk of thinking about the risks it could take.

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