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23 July 2020

What have PSRBs done in response to the COVID-19 pandemic?


Dr Andy Smith
Quality and Standards Manager, Membership, QAA


There's a lot of talk about value in higher education at the moment. While 'value' means different things to different people, for many students, achieving professional accreditation is a fundamental goal of their time at university. That is where professional, statutory and regulatory bodies (PSRBs) come in.


PSRBs are a diverse group of organisations that include professional bodies, regulators and those with statutory authority over a profession or a group of professionals. Examples include the Nursing and Midwifery Council, the Institution of Chemical Engineers, the Geological Society and the Bar Standards Board.


Universities work with a very wide range of bodies that accredit and add weight to their professional programmes – at some institutions, the number of individual PSRB relationships they manage can  run into triple figures. PSRBs, meanwhile, have agreements with universities, colleges and education providers right across the UK and often internationally. The complicated portfolio of partnership agreements works both ways.


In many professions. accreditation of degrees is essential if graduates are to be judged fit to practice, so there is a shared responsibility for standards with the universities themselves. PSRBs have a clear interest in the quality of teaching and assessment in our universities and colleges.


That's one of the reasons QAA hosts our regular PSRB Forum: it's a chance to connect and share practice and find solutions to problems, in the interest of professions, institutions, students, graduates and often, public safety.


Our two PSRB Forums during lockdown have, like so many events in recent months, been accessed from dining tables, spare bedrooms and sofas. The most recent event took place earlier this month, and it focused on what arrangements PSRBs were making for the next academic year.


We heard from PSRBs including the General Medical Council, the Engineering Council and the Royal Institute of British Architects, as well as from the Department for Education. They reflected on some clear challenges for next year. The pandemic won't be consigned to the past by September, with Josh Niderost from the Council of Deans of Health telling us that he would like to see the flexible approach applied in the peak of lockdown to continue into 2020-21. Physical distancing will also mean that practical assessments take longer to work through - and that's just for next year's cohort, let alone those waiting for rescheduled assessments and placements from this year.


Our survey said…


We, and the Department for Education and Universities UK, wanted to understand better the different ways in which PSRBs have responded to the COVID-19 crisis, to see where the challenges lie and where there might be common ground among PSRBs and higher education providers. Through a survey, 130 organisations that accredit UK degrees were contacted; 60 of them (40%) responded. Where we didn't receive a survey response, we cast a critical eye over any information that the organisations had made available to the general public - for example, revised policies for recognising a student's learning, whether temporary or permanent, or statements setting out the updated decisions of the Board or Council.


The full analysis of the survey is available now – but what were some of the headlines?


Perhaps unsurprisingly, programmes hit hardest by the pandemic are those with significant practical elements. The order to physically distance and stay inside unless absolutely necessary put a very quick stop to many work placements and practical assessments.


PSRBs' initial response to the pandemic has focused on the implications for final-year students. This is very much in keeping with what we saw from a lot of higher education providers in March and April.


Some PSRBs reported that where practical assessments were being delayed until restrictions are lifted, higher education providers had indicated they would continue to support students in some cases into the next academic year. Universities and colleges are putting in place measures to be ready for next academic year, but this extra pressure will need to be carefully managed against the need to ensure students enrolled as usual aren't adversely affected too.


Although the analysis finds good practice among individual PSRBs around discussions with providers about changes to accredited higher education providers, with a few exceptions we found that PSRBs - even in the same subject area – weren't always talking much to each other about the implications of the pandemic.


Working together


We have been running our PSRB Forums for over 20 years, initially in collaboration with the UK Inter-Professional Group (latterly known as ‘Professions Together’). That such a body no longer seems to be active has left a gap.


Our survey findings also suggest that further dialogue is needed between PSRBs and the sector to discuss programme change, to establish principles and to work through what will undoubtedly be a period of considerable change for some time to come. 


As part of our support for the sector we want the work we do to bring universities and PSRBs together to be even stronger for mutual benefit. In the coming months we will be seeking views on how we can help.


With major work planned for next year at QAA, including work around recognising micro-credits and revisions to England's credit framework, working with the professions will be critical. We want to ensure that these important developments work not just for students and their institutions, but for the employers and professions that depend on qualified and skilled graduates too.


QAA Members can watch a recording of the latest PSRB Forum in our Membership Resources site.