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10 July 2019

QAA is changing, here's why


Douglas Blackstock
Chief Executive, QAA

QAA is changing. As political devolution deepens and broadens across the UK, the approaches to assurance, enhancement and regulation change too. QAA itself continues to evolve, working across all nations in our ongoing mission to protect academic standards and the quality of the higher education experience.

A lot has happened in the world of higher education in recent times. The funding bodies' operating model has come and gone like other short-lived predecessors such as Academic Review and IRENI. Scotland has reviewed and reaffirmed its commitment to quality enhancement and partnership working. Wales has shifted decisively to an enhancement framework, but further change looms as the government considers the establishment of a tertiary regulator. Northern Ireland, in the absence of an elected government, has retained 2016 arrangements but it’s likely that civil servants will have been watching developments across the rest of the UK with interest for when ministers return.

It is in England where changes have been most pronounced with the passing of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 and the establishment of the Office for Students, a new regulator acting in the student interest. The OfS regulatory framework has been introduced and the mammoth task of registering all eligible providers is drawing to a close. QAA, with almost unanimous support from the sector, has been designated by the Secretary of State as the quality body for England.

We have published new assessment methods and are working closely with our colleagues at the Office for Students, conducting reviews and advising on quality and standards for decisions regarding degree awarding powers. We want to ensure that every student, whatever their background, has a fulfilling experience of higher education that enriches their lives and careers.

Sector changes have also seen the establishment of the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment, ensuring co-regulation remains central to UK higher education. QAA worked closely with UKSCQA in redrafting the UK Quality Code for Higher Education as a coherent and powerful articulation of a world-class HE system. Getting the high level Quality Code onto a single page was no mean feat, but its simplicity and clarity is compelling. Developing the accompanying advice and guidance saw us collaborate with over 1,600 inputs from institutions and students from all four nations, giving the Quality Code a truly UK feel.

There has been much confusion internationally about recent changes across the UK and QAA has redoubled its efforts to build connections and partnerships (most recently in Nigeria and Thailand) that support the UK sector and strengthen its reputation for quality.

One recent organisational change for QAA has been the end of compulsory institutional subscription in England, aligning with Wales where subscription has been voluntary for some time, and Scotland where we operate under a partnership with Universities Scotland and the Scottish Funding Council. This change has helped us focus on what the higher education sector really needs from QAA.

We’ve been informally engaging with higher stakeholders for over a year to help shape our thinking. In May 2019, we started a formal consultation, asking our currently subscribing universities, colleges and other higher education providers what they thought of our proposed new membership offer through an online survey. The feedback was positive, showing a high level of support for QAA membership, and confidence that the majority believe QAA offers services that higher education providers value.

We were pleased to see that 94% of the universities and HEIs who responded confirmed they are likely or very likely to commit to our core membership. For further education colleges, although there was a lower return rate, 79% expressed support for our proposition. We are extremely grateful for the trust in QAA that this demonstrates, but these numbers make us acutely aware that we need to deliver value for our member institutions, now and in the future.

One of the challenges we have been addressing is how to square QAA’s work for the benefit of the whole sector, with services only available to members who pay. We were therefore gratified to see how many respondents believe there is still a common good in our work. Of those likely to buy the core membership, 70% thought that Subject Benchmark Statements, Characteristics Statements and Quality Code Advice and Guidance should remain publicly available, although this was heavily caveated that they were working on the assumption that free access would continue only if most providers would become members.

We are acutely aware of the financial pressures facing institutions so we have not sought to replace our lost public funding by additional charges. Instead we are streamlining our organisation to ensure it can deliver in a lean and efficient manner.

Over the past year or so, UK higher education has been subject to increasing scrutiny. QAA has been at the forefront of working with the sector in response to many issues and assessing their impact on standards and quality. We have been directly involved in the debates around degree classifications, for example, and have embarked on a UK-wide and international campaign to combat essay mills. We view this work as critical to maintaining the world-class reputation of UK higher education and the QAA members who deliver it.

QAA is changing in a way that fits the needs of an evolving sector, remaining true to our values, our commitment to the UK system and to serving the distinct needs of each nation.