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safeguarding standards and improving the quality of UK higher education

End of year round-up 

GG: George Gigney
AM: Anthony McClaran

GG: Hello and welcome to this week’s QAA podcast, and the last QAA podcast of 2012.  I am George Gigney and today I am speaking with QAA’s Chief Executive, Anthony McClaran.  Hello, Anthony, how are you?

AM: Hi, hello, George.

GG: Today we are going to be doing a bit of an end of year round up and a bit of a Christmas Special, so quite a few of the questions are Christmas themed.

AM: Okay.

GG: Anthony, what has been the 'shining star' of activity for QAA in 2012?

AM: There has been so much activity over the last year; it has been incredibly busy. There has been a lot of hard work, a lot of achievement. Very pleased that Scotland has now embarked on the third round of Enhancement-led Institutional Reviews, a lot of work has gone into revising methodology, developing the handbook, training materials and of course we are also looking forward to celebrating 10 years of enhancement in Scotland, with a major conference next year. 
In Wales, we have established a physical presence in Cardiff. We are sharing space with NUS, and we are continuing to take part in what is very much a developing debate in Wales, about the future shape of its higher education sector and the role that quality assurance is going to play in that, so again, a lot more activity to look forward to in the New Year. 

In England, of course, we were waiting eagerly for the outcomes on the consultation on risk-based quality assurance. We have now got those; I think that by and large the outcome of that consultation has been very positive. Positive in the sense that we have got now a very firm basis on which to build the next development of the review system in England, and colleagues in Reviews Group are working hard on that at the moment.We will be going out to consultation ourselves in the New Year, so that will be the next step forward there. 

We completed the first year of the new IRENI review method for England and Northern Ireland. 16 reviews undertaken, completed, reported on - which is excellent. And then we developed a new review method for higher education and further education and I think, you know, generally one of the features of the past year has been QAA changing and adapting and growing to respond to the changing shape of the higher education sector.

So a lot more involvement in FE - we now have an FE representative on our Board of Directors. A lot more involvement in the private sector, alternative providers of higher education and of course, we have had a year of intense activity, with educational oversight and Access. Access to HE has been a really important area in terms of continuing to provide a route into higher education for - actually - an ever-growing number of people who are looking for that first chance to progress.  So that has been fantastic.

I think we have also been backing up our review activity. The continuing redevelopment of what used to be the Academic Infrastructure into the UK Quality Code and colleagues in RDP have been doing  a huge amount of work there.  They have taken on the HEER Database, they have taken on the EBTA Database and those are now up and running under QAA management. 

Our activity internationally has continued to grow and develop. Internationally we are very focused on the fact that next year we come up for review by ENQA so we are working hard preparing for that. We have been very busy with signing agreements in different parts of the world, particularly Singapore, the Council For Private Education and the Malaysian Qualifications Authority.  So a lot of activity going on there, and of course our team has just come back from China from the TNE review over there, over the last couple of weeks, so a huge amount of international activity. 

Public Engagement also I think, we have really seen that group stretching and taking us to new levels of engagement with students, with parliamentarians with other stakeholders.  The Parliamentary Reception was a great success, QAA Conference saw its highest ever number of people attending and we had David Willetts and the opposition spokesperson both speaking at our conference, and that has been terrific.  I think also, this has been a year when we have seen QAA really extend the way in which it communicates, in different and more direct ways with the public, and I am not only talking about my new Twitter account.  There have been other ways as well, so a great amount of activity going on there.

GG: OK, so you've spoken about QAA's external and international work, what work has it been doing internally?

AM: We continued to receive exemplary support from our colleagues in Resources, CRT, Finance, HR, OD, IMI. We have got a very positive story to tell on the financial front, both in terms of growth of income, increased income from subscriptions, more diversified funding base, which I think is important. We are less reliant than we were on a lot of our resourcing coming in from one or two sources. We, for the first time, have taken a decision to set aside £500,000 for an innovation and development fund; so putting a positive investment into making sure that the Agency moves forward. 

The Business Development Team is up and running.  We have recruited a very significant number, over 40 new colleagues, into QAA and there have been nine internal promotions. Now that, I think, is to be welcomed on every front.  The promotions show that we have got talent within the organisation that can rise to new positions and challenges, and the new colleagues reflect the fact that we are increasing our volume of activity and then we are appointing staff in order to be able to cope with that. 

We have completed the salary structure review; strong support from staff and I am really encouraged by that. And moving forward to a structure where we can, alongside our existing benefits which I think are terrific as a package, also recognise where there has been outstanding performance, contributions from teams and from individual members of staff.

GG: Okay, great year overall then for QAA?

AM: I think so.

GG: Definitely. And on which 'long and dusty road', as it were, will QAA be travelling on in the New Year?

AM: Well in my answers to the previous question, I think I have indicated some of the challenges that lie ahead for us in 2013, but let me just pick four particular areas. 

First of all, and in no particular order, employers: how can we work more closely with employers and with the regulatory bodies in delivering quality assurance for higher education?  How can we do more to engage employers and their representatives in our decision making, in our policy development, in our revision of the Quality Code?  How can we make a, kind of, step change in our relationship with employers in the way that we have done so successfully with students?  That is the first thing. 

Second thing is: can QAA really establish itself as a true thought leader, for the sector, publicly seen as a real centre for innovative thinking, and leadership within HE? 

The third element is the UK dimension. I think that is going to be a big issue for us over the coming year.  How do we continue to manage the challenges of operating a quality framework within the four different countries of the UK; maintaining coherence and yet recognising at the same time the diversity and the differences between those four countries? 

And then finally the business development challenge, and this is a challenge for all of us, not just for the Business Development Team.  We need to generate more income from a greater variety of sources, for QAA; to strengthen our own independence, to achieve what we are trying to achieve strategically, and to reduce our reliance on public sources of funding, which in these very difficult times can be very vulnerable. 

GG: Okay, and building on that, if you could pin down three main New Year’s resolutions for QAA what would they be?
AM: The first one would be for all of us to talk to each other more, face to face, and not just via email. 

The second; continuing to work on simplifying our internal processes, which are still too complex; very sound, very solid, but still too complex. 

Third resolution is for a successful outcome for our ENQA review, which takes place in the Spring.  We need to get a good result there. 

And the fourth resolution would be one I’d particularly to see, which is to proceed with our office refurbishments now, and make sure that we have got a working environment which is fit for purpose now, and which reflects the high standards that we are achieving in our work. 

GG: And if you are a wise man, which of course you are Anthony, and you could bring three things to the UK higher education, what would they be?

AM: Well the first one would be that - to ensure that all Students wherever they are studying are safeguarded under a single quality assurance framework. 

The second, I think, would be to bring real visibility and a higher profile for our Access to HE work. So much goes on there that makes such a difference to so many people, really significant achievements and I would like to see it gaining a much higher public profile, particularly at a time when people are concerned about the relative decline in the number of mature students going on to higher education. 

And finally, I think I would like to increase the international dimension of quality assurance, extending international reviewers into our review teams here, but also making sure that QAA is increasingly seen as an agency which can offer advice, consultancy, support, and even review perhaps, in countries outside the UK.

GG: And what would be the best gift QAA could receive this Christmas?

AM: Well I think for all of us, a very happy, festive, relaxing Christmas break. There has been a lot of hard work, people deserve now a time to relax with friends and family and come back even more refreshed for the coming year.

GG: I can’t argue with that.  Finally, we recently found out that there is 'plenty of room at the inn' for us here in Gloucester, where will you be spending the festive season this year?

AM: I will be spending Christmas, not far away, in Cheltenham, in Gloucestershire enjoying Cheltenham, enjoying Gloucester and enjoying the fantastic countryside that we have around here.

GG: Cheltenham is a lovely place.  Okay then, thank you very much for speaking to me today, it has been a pleasure.  Merry Christmas to you, and thank you for listening to this QAA podcast.

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