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HEi-think: Quality watchdog "has failed to protect HE standards"

As the Higher Education Funding Council for England puts out to tender the work carried out on its behalf by the Quality Assurance Agency, Geoffrey Alderman argues that the QAA has a questionable record on protecting academic standards. This is the first in a new series of "HEi-think" pieces from HEi-know.  In a second article, QAA Chief Executive Anthony McClaran responds to Professor Alderman's views.


Last month (7 October) , in a surprise move, the Higher Education Funding Council for England announced that it was minded to put out to tender the work currently carried out on its behalf by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA). Although this work by no means embraces the totality of the QAA’s activities, the effect of the announcement has been to raise fundamental questions about the relevance of the QAA and the value of the work that it performs.

The Further and Higher Education Act of 1992, which permitted the polytechnics to acquire the coveted university title, also extended to the entire, enlarged HE sector the regime of government-led quality inspections from which the ‘old’ universities had been protected hitherto. These polytechnic inspections had been carried out by “HMI’s” – Her Majesty’s Inspectors – and were wholly government-controlled. The task was now given over to the Higher Education Funding Councils, which were also wholly government-controlled.

For five years (1992-97) “teaching quality assessments” existed side-by-side with academic “audits” carried out on a purely voluntary and self-regulatory basis by the Higher Education Quality Council (HEQC), which was owned by the sector and over which the government had no control whatsoever. Academic audit focussed on process – the mechanisms universities claimed to have in place to ensure quality (the totality of the student learning experience) and to assure standards (the rigour of the award of academic credit): academic standards themselves were deemed to be exclusively the prerogative of the universities, and (save in a very limited sense relating to professionally accredited programmes) beyond external scrutiny.

Mounting anger within the sector at the bureaucratic burden created by these two systems of inspection – academic audit and quality assessment – led to calls for a more streamlined process. This could have become the responsibility of the HEQC, but this idea was vetoed by the government of the day on the dubious grounds that a statutory responsibility (quality assessment carried out under the 1992 Act) could not be devolved to a body over which government had no control. In 1996 something called the “Joint Planning Group” was created – a secretive (and all-male) body whose proceeding were never made public.


"Make no mistake. The QAA is an arm of government."

Even a cursory perusal of the JPG’s minutes reveals that the underlying agenda was to end self-regulation by the sector, as exemplified by the HEQC, and absorb the HEQC’s work within a new body which, though nominally independent, could actually be metamorphosed into an arm of government. So was born, on the recommendation of the JPG, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education.

Make no mistake. The QAA is an arm of government – a state of affairs most recently confirmed by its secretive mésalliance with the Home Office, at whose behest, last year, the QAA foisted “annual monitoring” on private providers wishing to recruit international students. In so doing, of course, the QAA has enthusiastically permitted itself to become part of the government’s machinery of immigration control – a far cry from its supposed remit to support HE providers in enhancing the quality of the education they provide.

Does the QAA’s inspectorial activity actually underpin robust academic standards? Sadly, the evidence suggests not. The fact of the matter is that since its inception the QAA has presided over the demonstrable dumbing down of academic standards in British higher education. It has presided over this dumbing down, but has done nothing about it.

To give some examples, in 2011 it published a report on the University of Wales in which it concluded that it had "confidence in the current and likely future management of the academic standards" of the University. Yet less than four months later a major scandal was exposed relating to this University and in particular to its validation arrangements involving a private college.

That same year the QAA’s report on Glasgow Caledonian University concluded that it had “confidence in the University's current, and likely future, management of the academic standards of its awards and the quality of the student learning experience it provides.” Yet earlier that year the UK Border Agency had temporarily suspended the licence issued to that University to enable it to recruit international students. Astonishingly, the QAA’s report on this University made no mention of this suspension, which came after UKBA inspectors found that a significant number of its nursing students had apparently been working full-time in care homes and had only been attending studies for a few days each month.

In 2012, in its Educational Oversight report on Leeds Professional College, the QAA declared that it had found that LPC possessed “no means of annually monitoring and reviewing its programmes in respect of academic standards and the quality of the student learning experience,” that the student progression statistics initially presented were “inaccurate,” and that at the time of the inspection LPC did not have a learning and teaching strategy. Yet LPC was nonetheless deemed to have passed this inspection!

But perhaps most astonishing of all was the reaction of the QAA to events that took place at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) in 2009. In November of that year the QAA undertook an “institutional audit” of MMU, on the basis of which it declared that “confidence” could “reasonably” be placed in that institution’s management of the academic standards of its awards. This breathtaking judgment was reached scarcely six months after the universities’ select committee of the House of Commons had condemned MMU for having meted out a quite outrageous (and possibly illegal) sanction - expulsion from its Academic Board (apparently on the motion of the then Vice-Chancellor) - against a teacher who had given damning evidence to the committee relating to the university’s mismanagement of its academic standards. There was no mention of this in the QAA’s audit report.

The fact is that the body that is supposed to assure quality – the QAA - is preoccupied with processes, not standards. This needs to change. But the QAA has demonstrated that it is incapable of reforming itself.  Its “vision,” set out in its 2011-14 Strategy, “to be the authority on UK higher education standards and quality” strikes me as preposterous. Condemned by committees of both Houses of Parliament (the Commons in 2009 and the Lords in 2012), the QAA is manifestly not fit for purpose. It is time for a change.


Geoffrey Alderman is Michael Gross Professor of Politics and Contemporary History at the University of Buckingham and Visiting Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies.



Glasgow Caledonian University responds to Geoffrey's Alderman's article:

"The academic probity of the programme for graduates referenced in the article was not the issue, and claims that students on this practice based course had been working full time in care homes and attending studies for a few days each month are misleading. In 2011, GCU addressed incompatibilities between the structure of what
was conceived as a practice based programme and the stringent requirements for international students of the still new points based immigration scheme. The process was carried out rapidly and to the complete satisfaction of the UKBA, which commended GCU for its response and swiftly reinstated GCU's Highly Trusted Sponsor
status following a brief suspension."


*Now read the QAA's response.


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