Watchdog adds students to audit teams to assess university quality

Scheme to be rolled out nationally after QAA pilot is heralded a success. Chloe Stothart reports

July 24, 2008

The universities' quality watchdog is to hire up to 100 students to join the teams that inspect universities.

A Quality Assurance Agency report into a pilot scheme in which students helped to audit nine universities has concluded that the experiment was a success.

Douglas Blackstock, the agency's director responsible for student engagement, said a conference on the scheme last week had also been "very positive" about the pilots, so it was likely that the scheme would be rolled out nationally.

The agency will issue a consultation on changing the auditing handbook. It will then train the students in early 2009 and roll out the scheme on either a test basis, or in full, later that year, he said.

Initially, 50 to 60 students will be recruited to the audit panels but this could rise to 100, he said. The students will be paid about £2,400 to cover the time spent training and auditing and they are likely to have experience as course, faculty or student union representatives.

The agency will advertise for student auditors but will also ask universities to recommend students and check that those students can be released from their courses.

Mr Blackstock denied that this selection process could mean that students would be chosen who would not rigorously audit the institution. "The idea that students are compliant when it comes to quality assurance is a nonsense. They take these matters seriously. Academic staff are nominated but they aren't compliant and I do not think students will be any different," he said.

Sheffield Hallam University is one of the institutions that took part in the pilot. Mark Wainman, its head of academic standards and quality enhancement, said: "It has been positive in terms of feedback from students and from staff who have been involved, who appreciate the students' input and them bringing a fresher perspective and challenging academic perceptions and assumptions about students' experiences."

When the QAA consulted on the idea of student auditors, some in the sector feared it would be difficult to find students of the right calibre to do the job. But Mr Wainman said the students had been "high quality" and had "not felt inhibited at participating as full and equal members".

Gavin McCabe, who was a student reviewer in Scotland where the scheme has been in place for several years, said: "I have been overwhelmingly positively impressed by the openness of the team to integrating the student reviewers."

Reports on the pilots published at the conference found that most universities used student union officers as their student auditors. Occasionally, replacements had to be found if the student union officers were not interested in auditing and some students had to drop out when auditing clashed with assessment.

The students did not audit in schools or departments where they studied. The report said the students could usually be relied on to ask "pertinent and penetrating questions" but sometimes struggled with jargon-laden higher education documents and recommended that a detailed glossary be compiled.

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