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28 October 2021

Reflecting on 20 years at QAA - A tribute to Douglas Blackstock


Dr Paul Greatrix
Registrar, University of Nottingham

Dr Paul Greatrix is the Registrar at the University of Nottingham and oversees academic administration at the University. He is a regular contributor to various sectoral websites and previously ran the popular Registrarism blog. He has previously worked at the University of Warwick, Staffordshire University and the University of East Anglia.

Douglas’s retirement as QAA Chief Executive really does feel like something of a landmark event for the sector. I’ve known Douglas for more years than either of us will care to remember, dating back to our days on different sides of a narrow political divide within student politics in Scotland. Since then his career odyssey has taken him from roles as general manager at three successive students’ unions - Greenwich, West of England and Warwick Universities - to a series of different roles at QAA - initially Director of Resources, then Chief Operating Officer, and culminating with his appointment in 2015 as Chief Executive.

Having bumped into each other on a number of occasions in different capacities over the years Douglas reminded me recently that I advised him many years ago not to go and work for QAA as I didn’t think the Agency would be around for long. I could not have been more mistaken and could not be happier that this particular piece of careers advice was studiously ignored.

Beyond QAA, Douglas has held a number of wider roles in the sector including on the international stage where he has been an active participant in the European Network for Quality Assurance in higher education (ENQA) as a Board member and, most recently, elected as President this year. Under his leadership QAA has developed a much wider international profile, reinforcing the esteem with which UK higher education is still held around the world and the recognition for the track record and rigour of the QAA quality assurance framework.

Throughout his career Douglas has demonstrated an ongoing commitment to the student movement and to supporting different aspects of student engagement through his Trusteeship at Edinburgh University Students’ Association for six years from 2013, and as a member of the Student Charter Group and the NUS-UUK Framework for Partnership Group.

Unsurprisingly, given all of these broader activities, Douglas is extremely well-connected with everyone who is anyone and has therefore been a great source of intelligence on sector developments (and more than the odd bit of gossip). As CEO of QAA, he has been an enormous asset to the sector and steered the Agency successfully through a period of quite extraordinary turbulence in higher education in the UK. Despite the reductions in budget and staffing that the regulatory changes introduced by government entailed, QAA has ended up, I would suggest, in a stronger place and well placed to continue long into the future, we hope, as the Designated Quality Body in England but also remains an Agency for the whole of UK higher education.

At the same time as all of this Douglas has contributed to adjusting the image of QAA from a big bad regulator to a genuine partner for universities and colleges - a genuinely respected regulatory agency which is regarded much less with hostility these days than with genuine affection (and no-one is more surprised than me to be writing that).

Douglas speaks eloquently about the power, value and importance of higher education, both in terms of his career but also enhancing the life chances of many who otherwise would not have the opportunities many of us take for granted. It is a passion for equity and social justice delivered through education he has clearly retained since his early days in the student movement in Scotland. Looking back on his career trajectory you would say he is not so much poacher-turned-gamekeeper as rabble-rouser-become-regulator-in-chief. It is a heck of a journey.

After hanging up his regulatory boots he will hopefully have more time to watch Scotland’s men’s football team continue their never-ending challenge to get past the group stage in a major tournament for the first time (following all the fun of qualification that is). And he can be confident he has left the Agency in good hands with Vicki Stott, who succeeds him in the role.

Thank you, Douglas, on behalf of the sector, for all of your contributions as QAA Chief Executive and previously. We will miss you but do wish you a long, happy and very productive retirement.

I’m sure you will continue to cross paths with many of us in one guise or another in the future.