How do we ensure quality in an expanding system?

It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change”- one of the most-quoted sayings attributed to Darwin. (And the fact that Darwin neither wrote nor said those exact words hasn’t dampened the business management and self-help industries’ love for such a useful aphorism).

And no one can doubt that we are going through a period of unprecedented change in higher education.  Shifts from Funding Council funding to tax-payer backed student loans; expansion of the private sector; global challenge; fiscal pressures; the planned lifting of student number controls in 2015-16…

“What kind of quality assurance system is going to be fit for this new world?”

The scale and pace of change is impressive. Take just one aspect- private providers. In a written parliamentary answer published last week, David Willetts (Minister for Universities and Science) said that BIS expects that £650m will be provided in the form of taxpayer-backed loans to private college students in 2014-15. The Times Higher Education tell us that that represents almost a 22-fold increase in student loans at private colleges since 2010.

Image by Howard Stanbury

Image by Howard Stanbury

University Alliance, like so many others, is focusing on how the HE sector can best manage this mass of change. In particular, what kind of quality assurance system is going to be fit for this new world? We have a strong and an intelligent system, but it is coming under intense scrutiny. From the Office of Fair Trading (closing today) to the Quality Assurance Agency, from Higher Education Funding Council for England to the Higher Education Policy Institute – so many viewpoints, so many interests.

There is, of course, a particular interest from the Treasury, reflected in the 2014 grant letter from BIS which specifically asked HEFCE “to develop mechanisms that protect and assure the quality of the academic student experience when we remove student number controls in 2015-16.”

There is a tricky path to be negotiated, to keep the best features of the current quality assurance system but to ensure that it is well adapted to new conditions. In a recent blog for HEPI, Andy Westwood, GuildHE’s Chief Executive, worried aloud that sector-owned ‘self-regulation’ via organisations like the QAA (which has just published a thinkpiece by Professor Roger King about regulation in a changing and uncertain HE system), UCAS, HESA – even the sector’s role in organisations like HEFCE and the OIA – is increasingly in question. Westwood warns, “we may be sleepwalking into a position where we give up sector ownership and find ourselves with a more external model of quality and inspection – something worryingly like an Ofsted for HE.”

“Yet just because these aren’t always easy to explain doesn’t mean that they aren’t important.”

Now is the time to speak plain English. The questions that we are all asked by journalists, parents and – yes – politicians, can be startlingly straightforward. Why shouldn’t there be Ofsted-style inspections in universities? How can I ensure that my daughter is getting value for money? Why shouldn’t the Government specify minimum entry to university as a way to safeguard standards?

As soon as we start to talk about the vital components of the quality assurance system: sector self-regulation, the Quality Code, the UK Professional Standards Framework, who subscribes to what organisation – people’s eyes begin to glaze over. Yet just because these aren’t always easy to explain doesn’t mean that they aren’t important. In fact, quite the opposite.

University Alliance has a vision of a world-leading, enterprising and innovative higher education sector that provides a high quality offer for students. We want to say what is great about the current system, where it is working to adapt, to set out the challenges ahead, and to look for the opportunities and pitfalls.

If you would like further details or to be involved, please contact Fiona Hoban. Keep an eye out for our contribution to the debate early this Summer.

Further reading