Recently the Higher Education Funding Council for England asked anyone who is impacted by Higher Education to give their opinion on the future approach to quality assurance, which makes sure your education is the best quality it can be. This is an exciting time, and we've put an input into the consultation!
I'm really happy this has happened because it means we can give a student focused input into this review, and hopefully help students stay at the heart of Higher Education. There were 28 questions in this consultation, and below are the questions we answered. I'd love to know what you think about this, so leave me a comment if you have an opinion too!
Future approaches to quality assessment in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland
This response has been prepared by Grace Anderson, Academic Officer with support from Jordan Lewis, Representation Co-ordinator (Cambridge) and Debbie Paradise, Head of Student Advice and Academic Quality.
Question 1: Do you agree with our proposed principles to underpin the future approach to quality assessment in established providers?
Yes. We believe that there is a lot to be gained from a peer review process, and are glad that this has been included. It is important to us that students are integrated as partners in processes of improving academic quality. It would be important to note that students need to be given appropriate resources to engage fully in this process.
It is also important that HEIs continue to have the freedom to be innovative in their teaching to match changing approaches to learning and teaching. We are concerned about how a risk to standards and/or the academic experience of students would be identified. There should be further discussion on the involvement and role of students in identifying these risks.
We agree that a consistent approach to quality assessment is integral.
Question 2: Do you agree that our current proposals for the use of meaningful external scrutiny as set out above are sufficient? If you do not agree, please indicate what additional or different external scrutiny you propose and provide the reasons for this.
Yes. External scrutiny is a strong part of assuring the academic standards of an institution. This process ensures that a provider has an institutional approach to quality assurance. The loss of this externality would have a detrimental impact to the public perception of an institution and how it safeguards its processes.
It is acknowledged that the institutional review process can be burdensome. It is important that even established providers take the opportunity to stop and reflect on their practices and how they can better the experience of both students studying, and potential students who will study, at their institution. This robust review process will reinforce the high quality standards already associated with universities in the UK. Despite this we recognise the value of PRSBs.
Question 3: Do you agree that future approaches to quality assessment should be based on an assumption that ‘one size’ can no longer fit all?
If the assumption that ‘one size’ can no longer fit all, the baseline requirement for approaching quality assessment across different HEIs is very important. It should be considered how this will relate to the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).
Question 4: Do you agree that there should be a baseline requirement for the quality of academic experience for students, and that this should be published and maintained?
Yes. It is very important that institutions don’t lose sight of these baselines. Student participation and its role in the internal quality system needs to be a part of the baseline.
Question 5: For England, do you agree with the proposal that an individual provider, once it has passed the gateway for entry into the publicly funded system in England, should not be repeatedly externally retested against the baseline requirements for an acceptable student academic experience, unless material evidence suggests otherwise?
No. All universities should go through adequate checking of their academic standards. This will ensure that standards don’t slip and that universities are always bettering their practice. It should be recognised if a provider has a strong track record when it comes to their institutional review. A slightly less onerous review/less frequently should be undertaken. A change in leadership at a university could have a detrimental impact on the direction of a provider.
Question 7: Do you agree that the funding bodies’ verification of an institution’s review methodology provides a reasonable mechanism through which to operate risk-based scrutiny of a provider’s arrangements to secure a good and improving student academic experience and student outcomes?
Yes, however we believe that the review process should take place alongside a type of external cyclical review process.
Question 8: Do you agree that student outcomes data should provide the basis for continuous improvement activities within an individual provider?
Yes. The student voice should be utilised and student representative structures should be taken into consideration.
Question 9: Do you agree that we should take forward into detailed design and pilot phases further work on the use of student outcomes data to identify patterns and trends and on the development of approaches for monitoring and supporting institutions as they address areas of concern?
Yes, although clarification would be needed on how these areas would be measured.
Question 11: Do you agree with the proposal that more emphasis should be placed on the role of a provider’s governing body to provide assurances about the quality of the student academic experience and student outcomes in line with the Higher Education Code of Governance? If you agree, please indicate what, if any, additional support they should receive to provide such assurances.
No. A governing body has a vested interest in the success of an institution and as a result if there are concerns about the academic quality of the provider, how likely are they to fail their institution? It could potentially have a negative impact on the experience of students and damage the perception of the UK higher education sector.
Question 12: For England, do you agree that, for English institutions, HEFCE should develop and use the existing external accountability mechanisms, particularly the HAR, in the ways described above?
Question 14: Do you agree that there should be a ‘probationary period’ for new entrants to the publically funded sector in England?
Yes, it is important to have a probationary period for any new institution entering the publicly funded sector.
Question 15: Do you agree that international activities should be included in the remit of future quality assessment arrangements as described above?
Yes. There are still students studying programmes based within the UK, and the reputation of UK HEIs is still relevant to international partners. By selecting a partner, a university is making a statement about the quality of an institution they wish to be associated with – if the partner isn’t of a certain standard then it could impact on the perception of the UK HE sector.
Question 16: Do you agree that future quality assessment system must provide reliable assurances to students and other stakeholders about the maintenance of academic output standards and their reasonable comparability across the UK higher education system?
The future of the academic output standards should be comparable across institutions. The current system relating to external examiners is strong but could be further supported by a robust process. This will further support the reputation of the UK HE sector.
Question 17: Do you agree that the external examining system should be strengthened in the ways proposed, i.e. through additional training and the establishment of a register?
The external examining process could be strengthened and used as a way to flag particular issues with processes, however examiners should not be held responsible for the assessment of quality. This is adding extra responsibility and could result in unclear boundaries.
Question 18: Do you agree that our proposals in relation to the external examining system are sufficient, i.e. do they go far enough to provide the necessary assurances about academic output standards to students and other stakeholders?
External examiners could be used as a tool to flag concerns or issues with particular processes within an institution but if they have too much responsibility, it could result in students being negatively impacted. It could begin to take attention away from the key role they are initially appointed to fulfil. As long as the selection process is proper and adequate training is supplied then this should give stakeholders reassurance in the process.
Question 19: Do you agree that is would be helpful to explore approaches to the calibration of academic output standards in different disciplinary and multi-disciplinary contexts?
It would appear to be problematic over many different disciplines with different PSRBs. It would also be very resource heavy to try and put this in place.
Question 20: Do you agree that providers should use the accreditation activities of at least some PSRBs more certainly in future approaches to quality assessment?
PSRBs should be part of future approaches, but it should be taken into account that they have varied approaches and focuses to their subjects.
Question 21: Do you agree with the proposal that we should place more emphasis on the role of the governing body of a provider with degree awarding powers to provide assurance about security and reasonable comparability of the academic output standards of students?
The governing body should have a role within ensuring that there are adequate academic governance structures to have an oversight of the academic standards. The composition of the board might not have the necessary skills or knowledge to have an extended role in academic quality.
Question 22: Do you agree with the proposal to develop guidance to providers on a sensible range of degree classification algorithms at the pass/fail and 2i/2ii borderlines?
Guidance may be helpful but could be problematic given the diversity of courses in HEIs. There should be reference within this guidance to the importance of student experience in terms of academic output and/or academic achievement.
Question 23: Do you agree with our proposals to develop and implement a strengthened mechanism to investigate rapidly when there is an indication of serious problems within an individual provider which has not been addressed in a satisfactory and timely manner?
Yes. The system should have clear guidance on how students and students’ unions should highlight issues within HEIs and there should be a transparent process by which they can trigger a review.
Question 24: Should the mechanism to investigate problems in an individual provider require, in addition to the investigation of the specific issue of concern, the re-testing of the arrangements in the provider under review against the baseline requirements set out for the gateway for entry to the higher education system?
This is hard to respond to without knowledge of what concerns would trigger this response, as it would depend on the issue or problem.
Question 25: Do you agree with the proposal that providers seeking entry to the publically funded sector in England and Northern Ireland should be tested, through an external peer review scrutiny process, against a set of baseline requirements for quality?
Question 26: Are there any particular areas of our proposal that you feel we should concentrate on as we undertake a more detailed design phase?
We believe that student input should be an integral part of quality assurance. This should include students’ unions retaining responsibility for identification of and recruitment of student participants.
A new system must have plain and clear guidance for how students and students’ unions highlight issues within their education. Alongside this guidance, there should be a process for students’ unions to trigger support from an external body when they feel shut out or disempowered within internal structures.
HEIs should also be expected to have detail in their policies about exactly how the student voice will be upheld and protected, and this should be done with input from a diverse range of students and student representatives.
We feel that it is also important to have students and student representatives involved in the design and review of the quality of their education.