'Well-regarded' providers in line for less frequent, light-touch inspections

June 30, 2011

The inspection of universities by the standards watchdog should move towards a "risk-based" approach that reduces red tape for "well-regarded" institutions, the government's White Paper on higher education proposes.

Ministers want to create a less frequent and less intrusive baseline of automatic appraisal by the Quality Assurance Agency - which currently carries out an institutional review every six years - but they also aim to add a discretionary layer of inspection.

It is envisaged that these extra reviews will look at new providers, such as for-profit colleges, seeking to access the student loans system for the first time, and institutions where problems have been flagged up through complaints.

David Willetts, the universities and science minister, said the aim was a quality assurance regime where all providers that access public funding were inspected, but with less bureaucracy overall.

"We fully understand that if a new provider comes in, you might well start off with rather more frequent assessments than someone that's been assessed for decades or an institution that's been around for hundreds of years," he said.

Mr Willetts said that the current system was unwieldy and that there were stories of institutions needing huge rooms to store quality assurance files. He referred to the University of Cambridge, which had contacted him to complain about the frequency of reviews.

"Is it really a good use of the QAA's time to be coming in for a detailed review of Cambridge (a few years) after the previous one? It's just got to be much more proportionate," he said.

However, Peter Williams, a former chief executive of the QAA, said that such an approach - which Australia's higher education system is also moving towards - had potential problems, particularly in judging risk.

"The idea that light touch depends on past track record is potentially quite risky in itself," he said.

"It is a very good system until something goes wrong with (an institution) that was thought to have a low risk, and then it is the agency that gets it in the neck."

He said that six years was "potentially as long as anybody ought to go without being looked at".

A report on the future of quality assurance, released last year by the English funding council and other bodies, also said that a risk-based approach "would require the development of a new process and metrics to determine the level of risk" and needed "considerable investment in time and resources".

simon.baker@tsleducation.com.

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