QAA – Questions And Answers: Quality assurance in England is creaking badly

The announcement this week that the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) could no longer assure quality in universities in England from March 2023 comes as a profound shock. They will not act as the Designated Quality Body (DQB) for the Office for Students (OfS).  It is astounding that their position as the DQB for the OfS means they no longer comply with international standards and have been suspended from the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education (EQAR). Failure to involve students and a lack of openness by the OfS are at the root of the problem. This means the OfS is rapidly heading in a direction that undermines the position of our universities globally.   

Yet it should come as little surprise as the rift between the OfS, as the regulator answering to the government, and the sector in general is widening fast. This does not serve students and society well if problems are hidden from view.

In ‘Why the QAA quit as England’s designated quality body’ (Research Professional News 20th July 2022) QAA head Vicki Stott stressed that she asked the OfS  to “make changes to its regulatory framework in order to facilitate the continuation of the QAA as England’s DQB, but to no avail.

She simply wanted the QAA to publish all of its reports, require students to be present on DQB review teams and have a cyclical review process. These are all things that seem reasonable in an open organisation that supports students. The irony of the title ‘Office for Students’ cannot have escaped anyone’s attention.

Serious cracks in the structure.

TEFs reported in April (‘The cracks between the government and universities are widening’ TEFS 1st April 2022) that tensions were rising fast as three consultations were closing. These were opened in late January and revolved around ‘Student outcomes’ (pdf), ‘The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF)’ (pdf) and ‘Student outcome and experiences data indicators’ (pdf).  The proposals were met with a cold response and Universities UK, who represent all universities across the UK, reported that  ‘Excessive admin will take focus away from teaching, universities warn regulator’. They pulled no punches with, “There is a danger that narrow definitions of quality and good outcomes will discourage innovation and penalise universities working with students from disadvantaged backgrounds or on non-traditional courses.”.

Now, with QAA walking away to protect their own reputation, there must be a rethink by the OfS and the government to prevent a further erosion of confidence.

What and who is QAA?

It is the quality assurance agency for higher education in the UK and has a pivotal role in setting standards and ensuring all institutions deliver the best for students and the tax payer.  It is currently celebrating its 25th Anniversary and has been acting independently as a charity to “maintain and enhance quality and standards”. As a limited company, it is partly funded by its university membership across the UK. This perhaps doesn’t fit well with the attempts of the OfS to exert direct control on university operations. The QAA has been the designated quality body since 2018.  Now there is a vacuum in quality assurance in England and the OfS is free to fill it with anything they wish.

International standards were not met.

Most people would expect all higher education institutions in England to be quality assured to accepted international standards. Certainly, QAA sets out to comply through their registration on the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education (EQAR).  They are therefore brave to pull away citing the OfS as the problem.

QAA’s work in other jurisdictions of the UK, and internationally, depends upon registration on the EQAR, and compliance with the ‘European Standards and Guidelines’.  But QAA suffered the ignominy of having their EQAR registration suspended recently. Cited in particular was non-compliance in England.

In ‘Extraordinary Revision of Registration of the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA)’ released at the end of June, two main concerns were raised. Firstly, and ironically, “the lack of students on the review panels for Quality and Standards Review (QSR), Quality and Standards Review Monitoring and Intervention (QSRMI) and New Degree Awarding Powers”.  Secondly, “the lack of publication of review reports for external QA reviews carried out in England”.  Both demands make the process of assurance in England seriously derelict and unsustainable.

OfS on standards and quality.

This is truly mysterious for those looking at the OfS operation. The notions of ‘quality and standards’ are raised many times in their consultation plans noted above. For example, “OfS is focused on ensuring through our regulation of quality and standards that all students, whatever their background and characteristics, can have confidence that they will receive a high quality higher education and positive outcomes”.  But this aspiration is outlined without any reference to the role of the QAA. However, this hides a desire of their management to run their own ‘regulation’ using QAA data.  The plan was to set up a separate DQB and ignore any accepted standards with, “The OfS will itself assess the provider’s compliance with this initial condition and will not commission the designated quality body to undertake assessment activity”. The idea being the assessment of the initial condition B3 for registration whereby “The provider must deliver successful outcomes for all of its students, which are recognised and valued by employers, and/or enable further study”. 

It seems the views of the QAA were always going to clash with those of the OfS. However, the ‘new’ body was expected to paper over any cracks and operate independently from QAA; but still using QAA data. Indeed, the alleged Designated Quality Body (DQB) appears to exist as this is written.  QAA announced its birth on 22nd March 2022 stressing its separateness from QAA and “operational independence” and already “provides assessments and advice for the Office for Students on quality and standards in higher education in England”. Unlike the QAA, that covers the whole of the UK, it covers England only and will have a new management and a board “independent of the QAA Board”.  No doubt the OfS will decide who they can work with. In the meantime, to many observers caught in the crossfire, this smells of a rigged set up propped up by the OfS interpretation of data.

Tensions are long-standing.

Although the moves this week are alarming, it seems there have been many long-standing concerns.  Back in 2016, Rob Cuthbert, for the Society for Research in Higher Education, made these observations about developments to date with, “the rise of the ‘gangs’ – the Russell Group and others; students, as quality assurance became ever less effective at delivering enhancement; and the reputation of UK HE abroad, as our determination to label things unsatisfactory advertised the few deficiencies of our sector and obscured our strengths” (‘The Thirty Years Quality War’ May 4, 2016 SRHE News.

Now it appears quality assurance will be directed by the government and the strengths become mostly hidden from view.

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