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9 January 2024

Welsh higher education sector at the cutting edge of an enhancement-led approach to Quality Enhancement Review


Professor Nichola Callow
Pro Vice-Chancellor (Education & Student Experience) Bangor University

2024 sees the introduction of QAA's new process of Quality Enhancement Review in Wales. Professor Nichola Callow, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Education & Student Experience) at Bangor University, reflects on the benefits of the new process in a special blog.

This year Wales will implement a new methodology for its institutional external quality reviews, with this new methodology putting the higher education sector in Wales at the cutting edge of an enhancement-led approach for the ultimate benefit of students, through the provision of the highest quality learning experience.


Before getting into the detail of how Wales has achieved this position, it is worth highlighting what a Quality Enhancement Review (QER) is. QER is the method by which QAA reviews and assures the quality of higher education providers in Wales, as part of the Quality Assessment Framework for Wales - it is a means of proving that providers meet the requirements of the regulator, the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW).


Crucially, it also checks that providers are conforming with internationally agreed good practice, as outlined in the European Standards and Guidelines.


Although the new method will continue to provide assurance around quality, there has been - as we have also seen in Scotland - a demonstrative shift towards quality enhancement with a focus on using evidence to plan, implement and evaluate deliberate steps intended to improve the student learning experience.


The new method and accompanying Quality Enhancement Review Handbook for Wales was developed in collaboration with the sector in Wales through stakeholder workshops, institutional liaison meetings with providers, oversight by an external advisory group, and engagement with sector groups. External consultation represented the final stage in the refinement of the review method handbook. Through this, the interests of all participants were listened to and carefully considered, with the methodology subsequently strengthened and enhanced through a genuine shared commitment to continuous improvement.


Of note has been the involvement of students in this process, resulting in a choice on how they contribute to the written element of their provider's submission: for example, a joint submission or a separate one, and various formats, such as student-led case studies, a series of commentaries or vignettes, or a video/podcast.


Students’ unions will also be given the scope to work alongside QAA and their provider, representing students at the organisational level. They will be central to supporting action plans for the provider's continuous improvement, which are drafted after QAA publishes its review report on each of the higher education providers in Wales over the next five years. These action plans will be updated every year and include input from the respective students' union, with this process being repeated annually until all recommended actions are completed.


How then will we be able to evidence that this new way of working is successful and has effected real change? One key marker of success should be that every provider feels confident they can be honest about where they are in terms of their strategic priorities and delivery of enhancement, and that, in turn, reviewers welcome that honesty in good faith and in the spirit of being part of a truly collegial team with a common goal of enhancement. Having this entrenched in the QER methodology is a strong first step and exemplifies the effective practice that an enhancement-led approach has come to typify.


As a provider, it was great to see this approach continuing at the QER Preparation Conference on 8 December 2023.* At this event we discussed issues such as the challenge of providing the information needed in 20 pages to ensure that the QER panel gain a detailed understanding of the context and priorities of the institution they are reviewing; the training of reviewers to ensure there is parity of reviews across providers, especially as many of the reviewers will be used to a different methodology; and how to deal with the transition of students’ union officers who may change through the course of the year-long preparation for the QER visit, in a truly open, collaborative and developmental manner.


If successful, this new methodology could serve not only as an exciting new means for collaborative working in Wales but as an example of the kind of quality enhancement practice to which higher education institutions across the world aspire. By listening to the sector and students, our new quality review methodology seeks to contribute to a sustainable partnership model designed to support and promote innovation, enhancement, and the growth of dynamic communities of quality enhancement practice both within and well beyond our own geographical reach, for the benefit of the higher education sector and our graduates of the future.


*QAA Members can view resources from the QER Preparation Conference on the QAA Membership Resources Site.