Wednesday, 8 October 2014

QAA? Armageddon outta here!

Yesterday’s announcement – on the HEFCE webpages but on behalf of HEFCW and DELNI and in parallel with the Scottish Funding Council – has caused more than a few ripples of excitement.

What’s the news? A request for feedback from the sector, to inform the specification of a tender for quality assurance for higher education. If that doesn’t sound significant, let me tell you that it is. First, some background.

The 1992 Further and Higher Education Act provides (para 70) that the Funding Councils “shall … secure that provision is made for assessing the quality of education provided in institutions for whose activities they provide, or are considering providing, financial support …”. Each Funding Council has a Quality Assurance Committee, comprising people with sector experience, to advise on how to undertake this work.

If my memory serves me right*, in the early stages HEFCE did some assessment of standards work in-house (the Academic Audit Unit), and a sector body – the Higher Education Quality Council (HEQC) – developed methodology for assessing and assuring quality at a subject level. And in 1997 the QAA was established to bring it all together.

An opportunity for a new logo?
And so the consultation and tender exercise is giving notice that the status quo is up for renegotiation. No doubt with pressure from some such as the Russell Group for a ‘risk-based’ approach (‘leave us alone, the metrics show that we’re fine!’) and, with an equal lack of doubt political pressure from different quarters to address perceived issues such as contact hours and value for money

And so this is a fight about university autonomy and about marketization. Part of the rationale for establishing HEQC and QAA (both bodies owned by the HE sector, like UCAS and HESA) was that if the sector didn’t do something, government would impose an OFSTED style inspectorate. And since one of the crowning glories of UK higher education is that our academic standards are high, this would be a problem. Universities need autonomy to set and maintain these standards, so the argument goes.

And marketization? Well, applicants to universities, almost by definition, don’t know much about the content or value of the programme they’re seeking to join. In the OFT’s view, they are much less sophisticated as consumers than the universities with which they are making a contract. So an assurance regime which is more like consumer protection – guarding against rogue traders – might be considered appropriate. There’s a lot of public money and private individual debt at stake, so these aren’t concerns which can be dismissed flippantly.

There’ll be a lot of debate and discussion. The Wonkhe post by Mark Leach is a good resource with links to various statements and also in the comments. Which is where, by the way, the Armageddon word came from: #QAmageddon being the hashtag of choice …

It pays to read the legislation carefully: “assess the quality of education.” Who defines quality and its indicators, that’s the question. And the outcomes will matter for the sector.

*Edit 9 October. My memory didn't serve me right! Academic Audit Unit became HEQC; HEFCE continued with TQA until QAA took over. Thanks to Mike Ratcliffe @Mike_Rat for the correction. We need the equivalent of rock family trees ...

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