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1 April 2020

Doing the Right Thing: Securing Standards in Challenging Times


Douglas Blackstock
Chief Executive, QAA

Before Coronavirus became the only headline in town, the UK higher education sector faced an unprecedented level of negative media coverage, particularly in England. It should be of note to anyone in the sector that the regulation of higher education featured in every party’s manifesto in the recent general election.

The new Government has a significant majority, giving them the power to deliver on manifesto promises to 'tackle the problem of grade inflation and low value courses'. We are seeing that majority play out with the Government able to act swiftly and with determination in response to COVID-19. Yet, we also now face unprecedented circumstances, with every institution across the UK implementing contingency plans and adapting delivery modes at a scale and pace previously unimaginable.

While the Government is clearly committed to supporting universities to adapt provision, this doesn’t mean there will be a pause in concerns about standards - unconditional offers, grade inflation, essay mills and a perception of 'poor quality, low value’ courses. When changes for this year's A levels were announced in England, many higher education institutions felt that they could mitigate against student uncertainty by converting their offers from conditional to unconditional. Despite good intentions, this was not a good signal and brought adverse reactions from Universities UK, Ministers and the Office for Students. It has also led to some Vice-Chancellors calling for student number controls.

Institutions across the UK have taken action to address concerns about grade inflation with the Statement of Intent published by sector representative bodies last year. QAA, working with the UK Standing Committee on Quality Assessment (UKSCQA) incorporated specific requirements into The Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications (FHEQ), setting out for the first-time what standards were expected of students to achieve any particular degree classification at Bachelor’s level. This work is in the process of being implemented across the sector and, for the first time, higher education providers will now assess degree classifications using a common framework.

However, the very nature of assessment is now changing and at a pace. Maintaining the value and integrity of degrees remains a priority, within the context of urgent contingency planning. The initial guidance QAA published last week identifies how institutions can meet the challenges of transferring performance based or practical assessments online, while remaining compatible with the sector-agreed standards set out in the UK Quality Code for Higher Education.

Higher education institutions are not the sole gatekeepers to securing standards of assessment relevant to employment; professional statutory and regulatory bodies (PSRBs) also play a role in many subject areas, and are an even more heterogenous group than universities, with few obvious unifying motivations. So, QAA has engaged in extensive discussion and is convening a forum with PSRBs to look specifically at how the sector might resolve their concerns around assessment for professional awards.

As the sector adapts, the integrity of assessment needs to be at the front of everyone’s minds. How do institutions: ensure that remote assessment is secure; verify the identity of candidates for assessment; and ensure that they are not making illicit use of reference materials? Some form of virtual proctoring is one possibility to assure student identity, timing and other nuances of invigilation provided for in a physical exam setting.

Many higher education institutions had already drafted emergency regulations covering other contingencies over the examination period and, in many cases, these regulations are being adapted to cover social distancing requirements. But proctoring seems to remain a substantial (and expensive) problem that they are facing with the exam season fast approaching.

QAA is also working with partners, funders and regulators from across the UK sector to produce a new series of publicly available guidance, covering - among other things - approaches to online assessment, academic integrity and the security of awards. We are talking to PSRBs to ensure their concerns are addressed, and we are regularly liaising with governments. We know time is of the essence and plan to have this published by 8 April or earlier.

While institutions compete on many levels, when it comes to standards collaboration is key to the global reputation of UK higher education. QAA’s role is partly to facilitate - bringing together autonomous institutions to develop sector-driven approaches to quality and standards. To that end, the guidance we have published on our website sets out high-level approaches to these issues within the context of the UK Quality Code. We have also opened a discussion forum where practitioners are discussing the issues they face and sharing their practices in resolving those issues. Given the seriousness of the challenge the sector faces, we have made the guidance available to all, not just our members.

COVID-19 has challenged higher education and society. Our sector is responding in ways that demonstrate the real value of higher education in solving problems for society. In these circumstances the sector can demonstrate, through individual and collective actions, that standards are safest in the hands of autonomous degree-awarding bodies.