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QAA publishes 10th anniversary report on the quality assurance of alternative providers

Date: March 30 - 2021

QAA has today published The Quality Assurance of Alternative Providers: A Retrospective View (2011-21), exploring our work with alternative providers over the past 10 years and the impact it has had on the quality assurance and enhancement of the alternative provider sector.

In March 2011, the then Home Secretary, the Rt Hon Theresa May MP, expressed concerns about the numbers of international students coming to the UK on student visas to what were described as 'bogus colleges' set up to sponsor students as a backdoor means of immigration. Following this, QAA was asked to extend its oversight of higher education institutions by bringing alternative providers under the external quality assurance framework that applied across the rest of the sector at that time.

A total of 462 alternative providers applied for educational oversight in 2012 and the report breaks down the outcomes from reviews to identify themes, features of good practice and areas for improvement. It also contains thoughts and reflections from key stakeholders about the development and evolution of the programme.

Key findings in the report show:

  • The six aspects of provision most frequently cited in features of good practice and recommendations were: learning and teaching; enabling student development and achievement; student engagement; assessment of students and the recognition of prior learning; programme monitoring and review; and information about higher education provision.
  • Of the 1,084 features of good practice, 88% related to the six aspects of provision referred to above. Features of good practice were notably common in relation to learning and teaching, and student development. Of the 3,060 recommendations, 82% also related to these six aspects and were particularly common about programme monitoring and review, and learning and teaching.
  • From the original 462 alternative providers applying for oversight, many withdrew from the sector - by 2019, only 228 remained. However, many that remained have benefited from the experience.
  • On the whole, alternative providers who remain in the system are those who have seized the opportunity to further engage with the wider sector and embrace the challenge of meeting UK expectations for academic standards and quality.
  • The revision of the UK Quality Code for Higher Education was seen as an important and positive development.

Douglas Blackstock, Chief Executive of QAA, said: ‘Our motivation to undertake external quality assurance for alternative providers was that they were recruiting large numbers of international students and those students deserved to know that they were getting a higher education qualification that was at the same standard as if they had applied to a university. Over time, we built very strong relationships with the bodies that represent alternative providers. They add to higher education’s diversity of provision and anyone applying now has the assurance of a good experience and a valuable qualification.’

Lisa George, former Deputy Chair of American Association Study Abroad Programmes, said: ‘At the start, we struggled with the fact that the QAA model and our models were out of sync. However, it ultimately turned into a very positive relationship and experience, which was hugely beneficial to our providers, students and stakeholders. The negativity at the beginning evolved to great positivity by the end.’

Alex Proudfoot, Chief Executive Officer of Independent Higher Education, said: ‘The initial response from independent providers to the changes was quite negative. It was seen as an imposition by government and highly disruptive. It was only when reviews started and had become well embedded that this scepticism was gradually replaced by a realisation that the discipline of the review process was helping many providers to bring about change and improvements in their own internal quality assurance processes. Without going through two cycles of the QAA review process, it would be far more difficult for many providers to navigate successfully the new OfS regulatory system.’

Paul Kirkham, Chief Executive Officer of The Institute of Contemporary Music Performance, said: ‘The outcome is that we have been able to create something that has enabled us to meet all regulatory requirements over many years and now we are in a position to apply for our own degree awarding powers. The downside of this is that we have effectively replicated the existing system, and we still harbour ambition to drive more innovation and change that will benefit student, taxpayer and employers alike.’