Introducing a teaching excellence framework alongside a new quality assurance method may create a dual system of quality checks and audits, senior sector figures have warned.
In his first major policy speech as universities and science minister, Jo Johnson said that his priority is to “make sure students get the teaching they deserve…by introducing the teaching excellence framework we promised in our manifesto”.
Speaking on 1 July, Mr Johnson said that he expected the framework to include a “clear set of outcome-focused criteria and metrics”, which would be “underpinned by an external assessment process undertaken by an independent quality body from within the existing landscape”.
Universities will be asked to submit their comments on the TEF, with a government Green Paper due to be published in the autumn.
However, it remains unclear how plans for the TEF will fit with proposed changes to the quality assurance landscape unveiled by the Higher Education Funding Council for England on 29 June.
Under these proposals, universities will no longer face regular institutional reviews from the Quality Assurance Agency every six years – with governing bodies instead required to vouch for academic standards, while Hefce monitors trends in student outcomes, such as student satisfaction scores.
Roger Brown, who headed the QAA’s predecessor, the Higher Education Quality Council, said that the twin projects threatened to “recreate the dual regime of assessment and audit” used in the 1990s.
“We may see universities having to navigate two quality frameworks,” warned Professor Brown, who believed that the Hefce reforms should be paused to allow for the TEF’s formulation. He also warned that the plans to involve governing bodies more heavily in the assurance of academic standards threatened to “drive a wedge” between governors and vice-chancellors if they disagreed on what approach to take regarding safeguarding.
Under the proposed plans, governors will be able to seek “external advice” on how to vet academic standards – opening the door to a return for the QAA in a consultancy role, believed Professor Brown.
In its consultation, which runs until 18 September, Hefce says that its reforms would provide a “strong complementary and proportionate approach” to the TEF and that it is “mindful of the need…not [to] introduce duplication, or increase unnecessary bureaucratic burden on providers”.
But Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said that tension between the two policies was inevitable. “When the quality assurance review was announced we had not seen the Tory manifesto and did not know the Conservatives would win an outright majority,” he said. “The TEF makes things more complicated, but then public policymaking is always messy.”
The proposed use of metrics to assess institutional performance in both policies may also prove problematic, said Roger King, co-chair of the Higher Education Commission and former vice-chancellor of the University of Lincoln. “It will be very hard to find metrics that everyone will be comfortable with,” said Professor King.
Improvements to the external examining system through more training for practitioners and a central register will also be difficult to achieve, he added.
“The fees for external examiners are not worth the hassle if they have to go through lots of processes,” he added, saying that the external examination system “will not stand the weight of responsibility being placed on it”.
Degree inflation: Johnson to curb ‘coasting’
Jo Johnson has outlined plans to tackle degree inflation, warning that the system lets some students “coast”.
The universities and science minister said in his 1 July speech that the honours degree classification system was “on its own no longer capable of providing the recognition hardworking students deserve and the information employers require”.
He added: “The teaching excellence framework ...will include incentives for the sector to tackle degree inflation and ensure that hard-won qualifications hold their value.”
The comments may prove to be controversial among universities, which closely guard their autonomy on academic standards. They also have undertaken their own work on improving degree classifications, including a pilot of a US-style grade point average system.
Mr Johnson acknowledged that some of the rise in the proportion of people receiving firsts and 2:1s may be down to “rising levels of attainment and hard work”. But he added: “I suspect I am not alone in worrying that less benign forces are at work with the potential to damage the UK higher education brand”, adding that the numbers gaining a 2:1 suggested that “this grade band not only disguises considerable variation in attainment, but also permits some to coast”.
Article originally published as: Twin projects risk a rebirth of dual system (2 July 2015)
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