One of the greatest challenges faced by the new Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education is to take forward the commitment to partnership and collaboration set out in the report of the Joint Planning Group.
There are lessons to be learned from the partnership approach to teaching quality assessment developed by the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales.
In 1993/94 the council adopted a phased approach to partnership. It indicated a clear willingness to consider "bespoke" assessment visits, enabling an academic organisation to be considered in the forward planning of visits. The council signalled early on the prospect of extending the partnership to include professional and statutory bodies. It also pointed to a partnership in which the quality assessment regime could eventually be linked with the internal review and quality enhancement processes.
Not surprisingly, the council wants to build on its regional approach. There is a strong emphasis on self-assessment and self-evaluation, and a "recognition of the maturity of institutions in having already developed internal systems for managing and improving quality".
Since 1994/95 a quality assessment manager has taken charge of all visits, affording continuity across each assessment and an opportunity to minimise duplication in support services. The role enables the manager to gain a more rounded understanding of an institution's culture and ambience than is possible on the basis of one assessment. The impact on the student learning environment of improvements and changes can be observed. Each of these advantages reinforced the spirit of partnership.
Each institution is invited to nominate a member of staff, who does not have any role in the subject area being assessed, to observe all meetings of the assessment team. The observer has access to all documents used by the assessors, including their analysis of the self-assessment report. This has helped to make the assessment process transparent. It has also provided significant staff development opportunities. Not only does an observer become aware, first-hand, of how the Welsh method is employed, but they also gain familiarity with the mode of working of the quality assessment manager associated with the institution. Institutional nominees become very aware of how central the self-evaluation is, and how crucial teamwork and ownership are.
For the 1996/97 academic year each institution was invited to nominate, for each subject assessment, not only a specialist subject assessor but also a department from which other assessors could be recruited. This approach enables a department to make a significant input to the composition of an assessment team which is appropriate to that department's mission and background.
This year the council and the Welsh National Board, the professional body for nursing in Wales, agreed to conduct the assessment of nurse education at the North East Wales Institute of Higher Education on a collaborative basis. The additional element of collaboration was welcomed by NEWI as a further step towards partnership. One aim has been to minimise the demands for documentation. The WNB team of professional advisers conducted its annual; professional review, while the team of HEFCW assessors undertook the assessment of council-funded provision.
In the treatment potential of the HEFCW approach were to be worked through more fully in the context of an "institutional quality assurance plan" of the kind required by the new agency, the potential benefits are numerous.
Recently there has been growing interest in the significance of self-regulation at both sector and institutional levels. This may yet prove to be an instructive aspect of the present debate on the way in which a future national system could be developed over a five- to ten-year period.
Where institutions are developing their own internal audit mechanisms which are robust, and incorporate an appropriate level of external peer appraisal, there is great potential for interesting developments. If it is assumed by the external agency that institutions are taking self-regulatory responsibility for quality and standards in this way, and are managing quality in a responsible manner, then, just as the Higher Education Funding Council for England financial audit is able to accept the validity of internal financial systems, so could the new agency move towards accepting the validity of systems for quality assurance.
There is clearly scope for the emergence of a dynamic partnership and collaboration model; even for collapsing internal reviews into the external reviews conducted by the agency, with one activity serving more than one purpose. The council partnership approach has made sufficient progress to support this view. There is a challenge to the new agency and other parties to recognise the progress already made over recent years in quality assurance throughout the sector.
HEQC audit reports have increasingly referred to quality systems which are robust, owned, embedded and exemplify good practice.
There is no reason why this should not eventually be reflected in a strengthening of the collaborative approach wherein the institution itself chairs and leads a review, with strong external representation, at both subject and institutional levels, and with the external agency nominating an external member to join the internal review process. It is conceivable that the territory could yet be defined in terms of an evolutionary approach towards a "progressive exemption model".
Jethro Newton is head of theacademic office at North East Wales Institute.