JW = Jo Wynn
RK = Raj Kumaran
JW: St Patrick's College is a private college that has voluntarily decided to go through QAA review, and I'm delighted to be joined today by the Director of Education at St Patrick's, Raj Kumaran. Raj, can you tell me first of all why you decided to become a voluntary subscriber to QAA and put your college through our somewhat intensive review process?
RK: St Patrick's has been providing higher education courses for a number of years and quality was assured by our awarding partners. However, we want to do our part to ensure that we play a leading role in ensuring quality and opportunities for learning for our students. After all, it was us who taught them on our campus and so the onus was on us to ensure that we took a leading and more involving role in providing a quality of service, a quality of education opportunity.
JW: You've gone through this process – you're currently going through this process; what do you think the benefits are for the college as a whole, including for your staff, and then what would you see as the benefits of more rigorous quality assurance for your students?
RK: Since we opted into the process, the process has been quite intensive, quite challenging from many perspectives. First of all it was a change in the way we operate, with a focus on students: shifting the focus from teaching to more on learning and achieving, and attainment of learners, which is what we believe the purpose of education is in life. The reasons for us to seek QAA engagement was because we believed we had taken the right steps at the right time to introduce a quality mechanism where we took control and ownership of the affairs of the college, and having established what we thought was a good system we wanted endorsement from excellent bodies – and QAA, quite rightly, was the only body that we could have approached. That was effectively a step taken so that a) we can have the endorsement, b) we can have the respect and the recognition for providing a quality educational experience to our learners, and thirdly we would have hoped that it would give us a competitive advantage over other institutions who are private, who are not overseen by a reputable regulator such as the QAA.
JW: You went into this without having to, and clearly it's been quite a lot of work, time intensive, but do you feel perhaps that – having gone through this first stage of QAA review – it has given you a head start and an advantage, if you like, now that all private providers are having to be reviewed if they want to recruit internationally?
RK: Absolutely. At the time when we opted in we thought we were going to be one of very few, if any, who were going to have the QAA seal of approval, assuming of course that we successfully come out of this review process with a glowing report. But now that it is going to be the standard expectation of all private providers, I suppose we would have probably lost that competitive edge in the long term, but we are quite happy to have competition, competition is what drives quality in the sector.
JW: And now, of course, we are going to be reviewing a lot more private providers. Would you have any advice to those private providers who, perhaps, are very new to the world of regulation on quality assurance, who are having to come in to this from the start; what would you advise them from your experience?
RK: I think, from my experience and given my background of software engineering, we realise that a good system is only good if it was designed well, and any college who seeks to gain oversight approval – I would suggest they take a step back, be critical in their thinking, look at every process, every stage from, be it, recruitment to teaching or learning and assessment to administering, keeping records and evidencing everything they do to a common quality standard
JW: The Immigration Minister has said that he thinks there are huge prizes out there for private colleges that now go through QAA educational oversight and get Highly Trusted Sponsor status, and that it is an opportunity for the private sector as a whole to help raise the reputation of UK higher education. Do you think, honestly, that for a lot of private providers out there it's more of a threat than an opportunity and that they are less interested, perhaps, in the reputation of UK HE than they are of their own survival, or do you think that that's a legitimate aspiration that the Minister has talked about?
RK: I think we've got to separate two issues here: the HTS Sponsors Licence Registration is an aspect to do with immigration control; it's nothing whatsoever to do with quality. With the oversight element being brought in, the quality element has been bolted on. At the end of the day with the White Paper being announced, I think there are great opportunities from the home-grown market, the European market, and not just reliance on the international market. So I think we have got to distinguish that there are two separate issues. Whether an administration gets the oversight arrangement successfully completed and whether they decide then to apply for HTS or not, or even to be on the list of the Tier 4 sponsors, is a decision that each institution will have to make depending on whether it's the home or European market, or international market, that they will be targeting.
JW: And finally, I know that you have spoken already to a lot of private sector colleagues, people who are coming in very new to this; are you someone who is happy to be approached by people who are just starting out and who might want to speak to someone who has already started to go through the system, and is fairly fully familiar with the work of QAA and review?
RK: Absolutely. I think we realise that competition and the raising of standards all round is important for the survival of the Education UK brand. Education UK is a major exporter, and I would be more than happy to share our experience, and skills and knowledge that we have gathered as a result of working with the QAA on the IQER over the last few months.
JW: Raj Kumaran from St Patrick's College, thank you very much for talking to QAA today.
RK: Thank you for having me.