Phil Berry is Director of Validation Partnerships at the Open University
A new university year heralds the dawn of a new look university sector. At least that’s the premise of the Higher Education and Research Act. With the current focus on Vice Chancellors’ pay and fees, the HE sector seems to have forgotten the earlier furore surrounding the passage of this legislation, and in particular the fuss over changes allowing new entrants into the HE sector. Just how the revised ‘Gateway Process’ eases entry into the sector for new providers, including the establishment of probationary awarding powers and the OfS as a possible validator of last resort, is likely to be brought sharply back into focus with the consultation on the OfS regulatory framework due to be launched this October.
Within this renewed debate the role of universities as validators will be a key issue. The Government’s position regarding the OfS, is that it will take concrete steps aimed at improving validation services, and will address some of the perceived barriers new providers can face when seeking a validating partner. In particular the Government is expecting the OfS to address what they see as a lack of transparency and opportunity for providers to compare various offers. The-aim is to create a more diverse sector and greater choice for students. The OfS will also be expected to actively encourage providers to develop validation services, and to set out exemplar validation arrangements to help informed negotiation between validators and providers. With the Minister unchanged, there is no indication that this position has changed and there are no signs that the established sector’s concerns about new entrants have altered either.
One question which will surely be raised by both side of the debate, is whether there still a place for validation? For universities validation carries inherent risks. Many universities have reduced their support for this activity in recent years, particularly within the UK, as they focus their attentions on the apparent riches which transnational partnerships bring. For those without awarding powers, what benefits does having a validation partnership bring above and beyond those which may be available via Probationary Degree Awarding Powers? Perhaps more importantly, what benefits do these relationships bring to students?
These questions have formed part of the considerations for a joint project between The Open University, Independent Higher Education and the QAA, which looked at principles of good practice for validation. The aim was to contribute to the exemplar validation arrangements that the OfS intends to develop. The final report is due to be published imminently and builds on the interim report published last November.
We believe that there is still very much a place for validation within the HE landscape, with benefits for students, universities and partner providers. Some of the key benefits we’ve identified include:
These benefits support the sector as a whole and universities would be wise to support validation relationships otherwise they may not like the eventual outcomes of the consultation around the OfS regulatory framework. We have a world-leading HE sector in the UK and that reputation must be upheld. Equally, having a HE system that tries to protect a monopoly will damage its own future.
It would also seem that validation relationships can also help support overall quality within the sector. A recently published QAA viewpoint suggested Further Education Colleges and alternative providers with universities as their awarding bodies tended to perform better than those with non-university awarding bodies. This is an area which need further research, but it is the QAA’s belief that universities may have a more direct relationship with their partners than other awarding bodies, thus supporting them both with quality assurance and enhancement.
Even with the prospect of Probationary Degree Awarding Powers there does still seem to be a desire to continue to have validation relationships from partner providers. In a recent survey by Independent HE 77% of surveyed independent HE providers indicated that they offer qualifications resulting in a UK-validated award and, whilst there is strong interest in obtaining Degree Awarding Powers (specifically single subject/level DAP), finding a new validation partner also ranked highly – suggesting that both options for awarding degree-level study remain attractive.
High quality validation services can ensure that new entrants are able to provide a higher education experience and outcome that is equal to, or even better than, that already provided in the sector. Within this supported relationship new providers can develop their awards and quality processes, gradually reaching autonomy and being able to clearly demonstrate that trust can be placed in their operation.
The OU’s mission is to be open to people, to places, to methods, and to ideas. Supporting providers through validation relationships supports the delivery of our mission and helps widen provision, as well as bringing the other benefits these types of relationships bring. We believe all universities have a role to play in building capacity, sharing expertise and supporting a diverse sector through validation relationships, so that it remains world class, benefiting students and universities alike. It is important that we grasp the opportunity to influence and participate in the future of validation.