Strengthening external examining ‘risks creating national inspectorate’

Increased role for governing bodies also questioned in responses to Hefce’s quality assessment consultation

October 1, 2015
Man held back by red tape

The increased role proposed for governing bodies and external examiners in monitoring standards at English universities has been widely criticised by institutional leaders.

Analysis by Times Higher Education of responses to the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s (Hefce) consultation on the future of quality assessment reveals broad support for the abolition of institutional reviews for established providers, but also finds pervasive concerns about how a “risk-based” approach would work in practice.

One area of particular concern raised by membership organisations and mission groups is Hefce’s proposal to require university governing bodies to vouch for academic standards at their institutions every year.

Million+, which represents newer universities, says in its response that governors are generally recruited for their expertise outside higher education and should retain a strategic, not an operational, role.

“They are unlikely to have the qualifications or capacity needed to express judgements about academic quality,” the mission group says.

The Russell Group, which represents large research-intensive institutions, says that the proposal has the “potential to destabilise well-established patterns of governance” that place responsibility for standards with academic boards and senates. It is also concerned by Hefce’s suggestion that governing bodies may wish to pay external organisations to undertake reviews.

“There is a danger this could create an overly bureaucratic, more expensive gold-plated system that is risk-averse and constrains institutions,” the organisation says.

Hefce’s proposal to “professionalise” external examining by introducing UK-wide training for and a national register of examiners also comes in for widespread criticism.

The Russell Group says that “increasing the bureaucracy around external examining will drive away the very academics best positioned to help universities improve”, while Million+ says that the system “could begin to appear as very similar in make-up to a national inspectorate”.

“This would be a marked departure from the long-standing tradition of institutional autonomy, would chip away at the respect for the academic integrity of universities and is likely to create additional and unnecessary bureaucracy,” Million+ says.

Several respondents emphasise the need for quality assurance to remain independent of the funding councils. The Russell Group warned that Hefce might be reluctant to highlight areas where standards have been affected by funding cuts if it assumes functions now undertaken by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA).

The suggestion that universities could develop “sensible” degree classification algorithms also meets a lukewarm response, with the Quality Strategy Network, which represents heads of quality in about 100 institutions, describing this as a “highly complex, costly and perhaps futile task”.

Under Hefce’s plans, universities’ performances would be monitored annually using data on student outcomes. In its response, Universities UK (UUK) lists what it thinks these should cover: retention, widening participation, graduate employment and National Student Survey results.

These could also form key metrics in the proposed teaching excellence framework (TEF), which will allow some universities to increase their tuition fees in line with inflation, and several responses emphasise the need for this to form one system with quality assurance.

UUK goes further, arguing that decisions to allow inflationary fee rises “should primarily be based on the sustainability of provision” and that any scheme linking fees to notions of teaching excellence “has the potential to introduce significant complexity, be open to challenge over its robustness, and work against diversity and innovation”.

“Holding fees below inflation is likely to reduce rather than improve teaching quality as it reduces the resource available for delivery,” the response adds.

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Print headline: Hefce proposals risk move to ‘national inspectorate’

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