Why retire higher education’s watchdog?

The Quality Assurance Agency carries out work of national importance. G. R. Evans questions the wisdom behind outsourcing its duties

June 11, 2015
Dale Edwin Murray illustration (11 June 2015)
Source: Dale Edwin Murray

Google “Hefce role and powers” and you will find that the Higher Education Funding Council for England – the body set up to disburse university funding – calls itself “lead regulator for higher education in England”.

The 2011 White Paper Students at the Heart of the System suggested the title, but it envisaged a collaborative arrangement, with Hefce “working closely with” the Office for Fair Access, the Quality Assurance Agency and the Office of the Independent Adjudicator. Hefce was to be “lead” not “sole” regulator.

It began well. In 2011, the Regulatory Partnership Group was set up, involving a comprehensive range of sector bodies, including the National Union of Students. This designed an “operating framework” to ensure that English higher education would go on functioning in the absence of the promised higher education bill.

It is worrying that the URL for that document now takes the enquirer to “page not found” and that this group has agreed to become a mere “discussion” forum. Google “Hefce purpose and oversight” and you will find a diagram in which Hefce presides over the process in an “oversight role” and other entities merely do some “operating”.

The creation of Hefce in 1992 to act as a funding body fulfilled the historic need for a buffer between university autonomy and state control. But Hefce’s statutory powers to attach “conditions” to grants have been eroded by the removal of the bulk of teaching funding to student fees. So Hefce has to rethink its position. It seems to be doing so by beefing up that “lead regulator” role.

That was dramatically evidenced by the sudden announcement last October that Hefce was putting “quality assessment” out to tender. To judge from their published minutes, this came as a surprise to the Welsh and Northern Irish funding councils, but they (although not the Scots) agreed to a joint process. A steering group to be “serviced by Hefce officers” was speedily set up, and its proposals for consultation are due to be published soon.

Can Hefce simply replace the QAA by awarding its work to other organisations? Offa and the OIA have their own statutory authority. The QAA lacks that protection. The QAA is an independent body funded from many sources, including its subscribing higher education institutions themselves. Its UK Quality Code for Higher Education, developed collaboratively over many years, remains the intellectual property of the QAA, as are the “subject benchmark statements” that set out expectations about standards of degrees in different subjects, so Hefce cannot simply hand all this material, refined over many years, to successful bidders. The Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies, which set out different higher education qualifications and national expectations of standards of achievement, form part of the Quality Code.

Moreover, the reputation of UK higher education stands high partly because of the international respect in which the QAA is held, in Europe through the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education, and globally through its “transnational” work. A newbie will have to build its own trust.

The QAA does much more than conduct institutional review of higher education institutions and oversight of higher education provision in further education and other types of college. It also responds to “concerns” raised when a provider seems to be falling short. Several recent QAA “Concerns” reports have indicated that some private providers may be putting students’ expectations seriously at risk. If Hefce wants this process to be outsourced for speed, can it safely be privatised?

There is other QAA work of national importance approved by departments of state. The QAA conducts the process by which applications for degree-awarding powers and university title are scrutinised before they can be approved by the Privy Council, against guidance and criteria issued by government, and it advises ministers. This ensures that the protected terms “university” and “degree” are not used inappropriately, so as to protect the reputation of UK higher education. The QAA is the Home Office’s choice to review and monitor institutions with highly trusted sponsor status, which may sponsor international students for visas. Professional, statutory and regulatory bodies and other accrediting bodies rely on the QAA for assurance that “qualifying” higher education courses are provided to the professional standard they require. With some of these the QAA has independent contracts.

Is the Hefce board seeing clearly here? Review for Specific Course Designation was introduced and is run by the QAA and is essential to protect taxpayers’ money, because it triggers the right to Student Loans Company funding. Yet the Hefce board in October 2014 was told that Hefce was now “managing” all this with final approval by its chief executive.

Before institutions heave a sigh of relief and prepare to make their quality assurance staff redundant, can they be confident that the burden of new requirements will be lighter? Will selling the QAA’s work to new bidders cost less? Will reinventing the wheel lead to a better system for students and institutions? It may be wise to respond to the consultation in the light of Hefce’s claim: “We are continuing to develop our role as lead regulator.” Beware quangos looking for something to do.

G. R. Evans is emeritus professor of medieval theology and intellectual history at the University of Cambridge.

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POSTSCRIPT:

Article originally published as: Will many hands make light work of regulation? (11 June 2015)

Reader's comments (1)

Well well. Others are beginning to notice that changes made to our robust assurance systems, is not a move to instill confidence and with precious little in the way of reasoning for the decisions. I run a private FE college, preparing foreign students for university, for whom budgets are foremost. We have been accredited by the British Accreditation Council since we started. It costs us a modest fee each year and fees for periodic inspections. For reasons never explained, the Home Office decided that an organisation called ISI, so small I had to look them up, would be the only body other than QAA, that they would recognise for the accreditation of our type of establishment. The experience was abysmal. Apart from being 5 times more expensive,ISI had insufficient staff and therefore had to employ "associates" . The inspection teams had demonstrably little experience in how our type of college operates and it disintegrated into a box ticking exercise, resulting in our failing to meet certain standards. We are still accredited by BAC and have just completed a 2 day inspection achieving standard in all areas with no actions. This begs the question of where is the standardisation needed , within this vitally important process? It may be worth mentioning that QAA and BAC are the only two bodies in UK to be awarded the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education, The Home Office and any other governmental institutions that make decisions that have far reaching repercussions, should have to make the reasons for those decisions abundantly clear, with provision to question them by those so affected.

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