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Academic leaders warning over quality overhaul plans

Academic leaders have warned that a proposed overhaul of quality assurance risks undermining the worldwide reputation of UK higher education.

Under plans in a draft policy paper from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, Future Approaches to Quality Assessment – England, Wales and Northern Ireland, which was leaked earlier this week, universities would be released from cyclical reviews by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), which generally take place at established providers every five to seven years.

Instead, the onus will be on institution’s governing bodies to ensure that internal quality and standards assurance processes “safeguard academic standards and the quality of the student experience.”

Under the plans, expected to be published next week and likely to be debated today at the QAA's annual conference in Leeds, universities will not be repeatedly tested against the baseline requirements unless evidence emerges of shortcomings in quality.

HEFCE would oversee quality by using current rules that require universities to have an “effective framework – overseen by its senate, academic board or equivalent – to manage the quality of learning and teaching and to maintain standards”.

The move is designed to cut streamline the quality assurance process, cut bureaucracy, and therefore save the sector millions of pounds a year. But it raises questions over the future of the QAA and its role in helping to maintain the worldwide reputation of UK higher education.

The new universities think tank Million+ has warned, however, that locating the regulator within HEFCE – which is primarily a funding body - could be a mistake.

“HEFCE remains a significant funder in terms of research as well as providing some direct grant for teaching and its funding role could be increased if fees were reduced and direct grant restored. It would be highly unusual for a regulator to have a major role as a funder. Given there are so many unknowns, proposals to extend HEFCE’s regulatory role may be premature,” it said.

Despite recent Which? University reports showing students’ dissatisfaction with their academic experience, the National Student Survey paints a positive picture of HEI quality and standards, as does the popularity of the UK as a destination for international students.

Peter Williams, the former chief executive of the QAA, said that HEFCE has given no cogent reason for wanting to ditch the current arrangements and does not seem to have consulted “anyone who knows about quality assurance”.

Professor Jon Scott, academic registrar at Leicester University, points out that the quality of UK education has been a real selling point – and one that is underpinned by the QAA.

HEFCE has declined to comment on the leaked document.


Get the full picture from HEi-know:  Read our HE Insight Paper on the Quality Assessment Review

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