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9 April 2019

What we mean when we talk about quality assurance of ‘UK HE’

James Harrison
Policy Officer, QAA

The term ‘UK HE’ is used a lot but, in a devolved system, what does it actually mean when it comes to quality assurance?

QAA was founded in 1997 and, today, we’re the independent quality body for the UK, across its four nations. In the years since 1997, there have been fundamental shifts in how higher education policies and practices work, as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland became devolved from central government.

For example, because of a decision made by the devolved Scottish Government and Parliament, Scottish-born students who study at a Scottish university have their tuition cost funded, whereas this isn’t the case for English-born students in England.

These divergences also apply to quality approaches. In England, for instance, the new regulatory framework uses a risk-based and outcomes-focused quality system designed to minimise regulatory burden, and where providers do not routinely undergo formal review. In Scotland, on the other hand, every university has a cyclical review visit every four or five years by QAA.

As the UK quality body, we therefore deliver tailored approaches for each of the four nations, underpinned by our UK-wide work under an inter-connected system of quality assurance.  So, how do we do this?

UK Quality Code

One of the main cornerstones is the UK Quality Code. The Code is a key reference point for UK HE: it protects public and student interests, and champions the UK’s world-leading reputation for quality. 

We manage the Code, which was recently revised in partnership with the sector. A number of elements make up the revised Code: Expectations and Core practices required of all providers; Common practices with a focus on enhancement; and additional advice and guidance on 12 Themes to further support providers. There were more than 1,670 individual contributions to this process by colleagues from around the UK, to streamline and improve the Code to ensure it remains our UK sector’s shared expression of quality and standards, and meets the needs of the four nations.

The inter-connected system of quality

There are several key values in which all four UK nations are united in their support. These are:

  • A commitment to excellence.
  • Internal quality assurance procedures.
  • External quality assurance arrangements when required.
  • Student involvement and engagement.
  • Public information (on provision, quality, learning and teaching arrangements).
  • Scrutiny of powers to award degrees.

There are also baseline regulatory requirements to which the higher education sectors adhere. While some are focused on specific nations within the UK, most requirements are UK-wide. The UK-wide baseline requirements are:

  • Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies
    • These set out the different levels of higher education qualifications and the requirements for each of these. There is one framework for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and a separate one for Scotland, with both combined in one publication.
  • Relevant code of HE governance
    • These outline how higher education providers should be governed effectively.
  • The Expectations and Core practices of the UK Quality Code.
  • Providers' relevant obligations under consumer law.
  • Framework for handling complaints and academic appeals.

New poster: responsive assurance across the UK

In light of the many recent policy changes around the UK, we’ve created a poster to explain what happens where, and what unifies us as ‘UK HE’. This also responds to feedback we’ve had from international colleagues, expressing confusion about these changes.

We’re encouraging colleagues around the UK and beyond to use and share this poster, to demonstrate the responsive and interconnected approach to quality assurance across the UK. We’ll keep it updated because, as experience tells us, there may be further changes down the road…