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HEi-think: The QAA is not secretive or an "arm of the government"

Responding to an HEi-think piece from Professor Geoffrey Alderman, Quality Assurance Agency Chief Executive Anthony McClaran denies that the QAA is secretive or an "arm of government", but argues instead that it is playing a key role in upholding standards and protecting the reputation of UK higher education worldwide.


QAA reviews have been part of the Home Office's system for visa sponsorship since the points-based system was phased in during 2008-10. Our findings at universities and other degree-awarding bodies have long been a factor in their right to recruit students from around the world.

It was this proven track record that led to Home Secretary Theresa May announcing in March 2011 that responsibility for the 'educational oversight' of alternative higher education providers would be taken up by QAA, sweeping away the previous system of accreditation by a host of private bodies.

Crucially, QAA reviews are only part of the picture. Universities, colleges and other providers of higher education must meet a number of criteria set by the Home Office. They must, for example, have systems in place to monitor attendance. They must provide information about financial processes and governance. They may also be subject to no notice visits by government inspectors, checking their compliance with sponsor duties and adherence to the law. These criteria - that can be met or not met regardless of the outcome of QAA review - are overseen by the Home Office's UK Visas and Immigration branch. Only by meeting each one can a provider be eligible to sponsor tier 4 visas. QAA reviews academic standards and quality, and we do not duplicate the work of UKVI or others.

The right to sponsor international student visas can mean big business for colleges. The benefits it can bring are great, and with it must come responsibility: responsibility to the hard won reputation of the UK's excellent higher education system, which is among the best in the world; responsibility too to the students that come to the UK with high expectations. We introduced annual monitoring - which for providers that have not seen significant change in the preceding 12 months is a light touch process - to ensure that the findings remain current and relevant.

To call this 'secretive' and to call QAA an 'arm of government' is not only factually misleading (QAA publishes its reports and is an independent charity regulated by the Charity Commission) but also misses the point of how UK higher education is quality assured. We have a highly effective system of co-regulation, with QAA's independent reviews providing the necessary checks on institutions’ own quality systems. This principle was central to our establishment almost 18 years ago. 

QAA was founded in April 1997, bringing together the Higher Education Quality Council and the quality assessment divisions of funding councils in England and Wales. QAA later agreed to work with the then Scottish Higher Education Funding Council.

This followed a report of the Joint Planning Group for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (JPG) Assuring the Quality of Higher Education, in December 1996. The JPG comprised representatives of universities and the funding councils in England and Wales. The terms of reference and membership of the JPG are all readily available.

The report recommended the establishment of a new and independent quality assurance agency, with service level agreements with representative bodies and funding councils. QAA's role was further developed by the 1997 Dearing Report, which made explicit reference to the findings of the JPG. In addition to carrying out reviews and audits, QAA was now called upon to provide assurance about standards and quality, to set up a higher education qualifications framework, to develop a code of practice, and provide subject benchmark information. This consolidated QAA as the UK's single quality assurance agency, responsible for assuring and enhancing standards and quality in higher education.


"The Government may have asked us to do this work, but that does not make QAA a government body."

Since then, higher education has seen significant developments. More further education colleges now offer degree programmes and, in some cases, have the power to award their own Foundation Degrees. Newer providers have worked hard to achieve not only Degree Awarding Powers but University Title. Soon we will see the lifting of student number controls in England.

We have also seen the rise of the alternative provider. QAA reviews all alternative providers that want something from the system: access for the students to publicly backed loans, the right to confer degrees in their own name, or status as a highly trusted sponsor, bringing with it the lucrative international student market.

We have seen excellent practice in the private sector, with colleges that have a focus on standards and want to give their students the best higher education experience. Not all, however, have met the grade. Of the almost 300 colleges that applied for Review for Educational Oversight since 2011, more than 91 colleges withdrew from the process, and 42 failed.  We know that there will always be new threats to quality and standards, and even deliberately concealed malpractice from a minority.

We have recently further strengthened the review method for educational oversight, reviewing providers against the same expectations as the rest of the sector. We also now check on their financial sustainability, management and governance. This is a stringent review that replicates the checks done by the Higher Education Funding Council for England for publicly funded providers: not an extra step, but ensuring that all providers are scrutinised effectively.

The Government may have asked us to carry out this work, but that does not make QAA a government body. We work to protect both the reputation of UK higher education and the interests of students. We were appointed in recognition of our long standing expertise in external quality assurance and reviewing how standards are set and managed. The reputation of UK higher education is hard won. It is only right that providers that want access to highly prized assets and status are subject to the same expectations as the traditional sector.


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