Quality assessment that the academy can embrace

That is the promise of a sector-wide consultation about the regulatory future, argues Madeleine Atkins

June 29, 2015
A green pencil beside ticked boxes
Source: iStock

If students are at the heart of our higher education system, it follows that delivering a high-quality academic experience, confidence in degree standards and a commitment to excellence and innovation in learning and teaching must be central concerns.

The question of how quality should be assessed in a fast-evolving, globally competitive system is critical. At the start of the year, the funding bodies in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, as part of their statutory responsibilities, set up a steering group chaired by Dame Shirley Pearce, which initiated a wide-ranging discussion about quality assessment’s future. People were asked to cast their minds forward. Assuming that current sector trends – increasing diversity, competition and expansion – continue, what will “quality” look like in 10 years’ time?

To encourage the discussion, a series of research reports was commissioned. One looks at quality assessment in other countries. Risk-based approaches emerge as a common theme, although methodologies differ (for example, Australia does not conduct cyclical peer reviews). Another report, by accountancy firm KPMG, finds that England’s sector is spending more than £1 billion a year on institutional and regulatory compliance related to teaching and learning, and adds that it may be possible to find savings. A third report, by the Higher Education Academy, confirms the key role of external examination in protecting academic standards, but also identifies areas for improvement.

Fifteen round tables, two conferences, nearly 200 written submissions and many meetings later, we think we may be closer to an answer. A broad consensus has emerged that any future quality assessment arrangements must maintain confidence in academic standards, respect institutional autonomy and support students’ interests. They should be proportionate and risk-based. Where possible, they should minimise the financial burden institutions bear. And there is a clear message that when it comes to quality assessment, one size cannot fit all: there must be sufficient flexibility to accommodate diversity of mission, provision, location, mode of delivery and student body.

The consultation, published this week, outlines proposals for a quality assessment system that builds on these principles. The plans confirm the responsibility of providers with degree-awarding powers to safeguard academic standards, and all providers’ obligation to ensure the quality of their students’ academic experience, drawing on the commitment and expertise of governors, staff and students. The incentive, motivation and accountability for assuring this rests primarily with the individual universities and colleges at which students enrol.

However, a higher education system with a worldwide reputation requires strong, informed external oversight. The funding bodies are part of this co-regulatory element, but the consultation also envisages the involvement of other organisations. We also want to learn from the HEA report and work with sector bodies to strengthen and modernise the external examination system.

The focus in other quality assessment regimes has shifted from process-driven assurance to analysis of student academic outcomes. Respondents to the discussion indicated support for this and a desire to build on existing institutional activity to drive excellence and innovation through continuous improvement of learning and teaching. Following an overwhelmingly positive response to our call for expressions of interest, the Higher Education Funding Council for England is now working with a variety of institutions to pilot approaches to measuring students’ learning gains. This will help us and the sector to understand better the impact of higher education and to evidence the value of investing in it.

But nothing is signed and sealed, and each funding body will decide separately how to proceed once the consultation concludes in early autumn. This is an opportunity to help develop a quality assessment system that is fit for the future: one that continues to uphold the reputation of our outstanding universities and colleges, that commands the confidence of students, employers and the public, and that the sector can embrace with a sense of ownership.

Madeleine Atkins is chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

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