Two quality assurance systems to one: remembering the Joint Planning Group – Part 1

The Joint Planning Group (JPG) played a small but significant part in the history of quality assurance in UK higher education. It is now 20 years since the JPG undertook its work and it does seem as if we are now heading into a fragmented quality assurance landscape of the kind the JPG was established to address.

In that context, it seems appropriate to look back at this group and its recommendations which led to the establishment of the Quality Assurance Agency and the quality framework we know and love today. First, though we need to look at the circumstances which led to the creation of the JPG.

The CNAA and the established universities: two very different traditions

The UK higher education sector’s current quality assurance architecture has its origins in two quite different traditions. One is the public sector model of the Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA) which oversaw the former polytechnics from 1964 through to its abolition in 1993. The other is the much more internally-focused and largely tacit model of the established universities. Both traditions operated the very long-standing external control mechanism of external examining which, perhaps surprisingly given the huge changes which have taken place in higher education over the last century, can be seen as a continuous system, developed and refined over the years and under challenge again now but still not that far removed from its original purposes. Beyond external examining the pattern of external intervention arises primarily from the CNAA tradition of peer review with parallel inspection by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate (HMI), and additional interventions by Professional and Statutory Bodies (PSBs) as well as other awarding bodies, such as BTEC. The Teaching Quality Assessment (TQA) model, introduced into the converged university sector in 1992 effectively merged these first two processes.

Although it was presented in the language of collegiality, in TQA the emphasis was very much on the inspection of teaching in the classroom (as per HMI) rather than peer review.

The elaborate architecture of course validation, monitoring and review, underpinned by the definitive course document, can be seen as part of the fabric of public sector higher education. This kind of quality assurance culture was almost totally absent from established universities except for the small number involved in validating courses at colleges outside of the CNAA orbit, where the universities themselves adopted a quasi-CNAA role in their dealings with validated institutions, and with the institutional interactions in a limited range of subjects with PSBs. The latter was largely concerned with curricular specification rather than directly with quality and standards, although curriculum definition was, and for many PSBs is still, regarded as an adequate proxy for quality and standards assurance.

The language, procedures, structures, ethos and culture of the CNAA permeated only very slowly (except in those instances cited above) into the established university sector until the beginning of the 1990s. Looking back at the guidelines produced by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (CVCP) in 1985-89 on external examining and validation they seem cautious and tentative compared to the assertive documents produced by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) from 1997 onwards.

They also bear the hallmarks of lengthy deliberation, perhaps unsurprising given the traditional CVCP difficulty of achieving consensus on anything other than lowest common denominator policy and given the timing: after the dramatic cuts of the early 1980s and the 1985 Jarratt report on efficiency in HE, vice chancellors were naturally going to be suspicious of further (apparent or real) erosions of autonomy. It is striking that, after decades of little change, in the decade after 1990 the established universities moved from a position where only the most minimal formal quality assurance processes were evident to one where their systems resembled those of the late period of CNAA regulation of the polytechnics.

Historically, the established universities depended, implicitly and explicitly, on the ability, professionalism and integrity of academic staff, supplemented by the external examiner system, to assure the quality of provision. In the case of the CNAA sector, the raft of external controls was the primary vehicle but the self-criticality of the academic community was also seen as a vital component.[vii] As CNAA began to relax its controls in the late 1980s, permitting greater freedom to the polytechnics to approve their own courses, abolishing the Subject Panels and, ultimately, accrediting institutions (before eventually disappearing after the 1992 FHE Act), the established universities began to put in place procedures and processes which edged them towards the CNAA model. Beyond the 1986 Reynolds guidelines which were the first such substantive gesture, the CVCP established the Academic Audit Unit (AAU) in 1990. The AAU was not about seeking convergence but represented a belated and, as it proved, inadequate attempt to head off anticipated Government intervention.


But Academic Audit, which operated under the auspices of the CVCP, must have seemed too collegial, relaxed, cosy and far too consensual for Government. The reports of Audit visits were not published and there did not appear to be anything, beyond the most modest peer pressure, which was actually holding universities to account for the quality of provision. The lack of force of the first Audits can be seen from how many Continuation Audit reports contain recommendations which relate to matters outstanding from these early attempts at external quality assurance.

Moreover, only a third of universities had been visited by the AAU under the first round of Audits by the time of the 1992 Act and very few reports produced. It is debatable whether anything the CVCP could have done, even assuming it had managed to achieve consensus for a much firmer quality set-up, would have averted the inspectorial thrust of the 1992 Act. Government at that time was perhaps disinclined to accept anything the universities proposed themselves, probably believing they had had it too free and easy for too long.

The 1992 Further and Higher Education Act: legislating for convergence

The 1992 Act wrought fundamental change, abolishing the CNAA and allowing the polytechnics to rename themselves universities and to award their own degrees. The Act also created Teaching Quality Assessment (TQA) under the auspices of the funding councils, placing them under a statutory obligation to ‘secure that provision is made for assessing the quality of education’ and led to the separate establishment of the Higher Education Quality Council, putting some distance between the CVCP and the quality assurance function of Audit and enshrining a modest degree of independence from the universities.

The introduction of TQA, which was to have such a profound impact on universities in the decade which followed, actually only comprised a few paragraphs of the 1992 Act. TQA was based on the somewhat simplistic notion that the only way to test the quality of provision is to observe the teaching of courses. The funding councils chose to interpret the Act as requiring the councils themselves to undertake assessment and to do so on a subject by subject basis. But, as Wagner observes, the legislation does not stipulate either of these things. The councils’ interpretation and implementation of the Act delivered a mechanism at the polar opposite of the cosy consensualism of Audit. Moreover, the funders’ TQA, with its crude snapshot approach to observation, failed to acknowledge the multidimensionality of quality.

The 1992 Act, therefore, resulted in an enforced convergence of external quality assurance systems for the public and established university sectors. From very different traditions, which had been edging closer together during the mid-80s to the beginning of the 1990s – with the polytechnics gaining greater autonomy and the established universities introducing some CNAA-style systems – the newly unified sector now had the same external framework. But the internal quality assurance systems developed by the established universities had a long way to go to catch up with ex-polytechnics.

At the point of the abolition of the CNAA, the typical ex-polytechnic had in place well-established systems for the initial approval and review of courses, validation, review or re-validation, annual monitoring and definitive course documents. In expressing their greater freedom in developing their own quality assurance mechanisms in the last days of the CNAA, some had even anticipated by some years the TQA regime and introduced their own form of subject review. With the relaxation of CNAA controls in the late 1980s, there was greater freedom for these systems to evolve and to be elaborated. Meanwhile, the early years of the 1990s saw many of the established universities follow suit, introducing formal systems of course approval and review and monitoring which were felt to be necessary to meet the new external requirements.

Subsequent developments

Following the introduction of Audit in 1991 and TQA in 1992, both evolved throughout the 1990s. Why did the sector continue with Audit following the introduction of TQA and subject itself to this additional quality mechanism? Some at the time argued that the universities should simply abolish Audit because it had not served its purpose of preventing assessment and that retaining it represented an unnecessary additional burden. However, because of the case made by the CVCP and others, the process of Audit was, ultimately, retained.

Therefore, both Audit and TQA continued despite the overlaps and additional burden a dual system presented. Audit evolved into Continuation Audit and spawned Overseas Audits and Collaborative Audits too. TQA became Quality Assessment and then evolved into Subject Review from 1995 which included coverage of a broader sweep of quality assurance, divided into six ‘aspects of provision’:

  • Curriculum design, content and organisation
  • Teaching, learning and assessment
  • Student progression and achievement
  • Student support and guidance
  • Learning resources
  • Quality assurance and enhancement (subsequently modified to Quality management and enhancement).

This amended model also entailed universal rather than selective visits, a reduced emphasis on direct observation of teaching and a much greater stress on documentary evidence.

It took several years of running this dual, overlapping and burdensome system before the first moves were made to bring them together under a single organisation. They were, eventually, taken on together under the QAA in late 1996 following protracted consideration by the JPG.

The story of the JPG is notable for its length, for the efforts invested to deliver such a modest outcome and for the lack of influence by the universities on the final result. The worry must be that we are now heading towards a similar scenario where we will have a fragmented quality landscape, with different bodies involved and a new TEF too. It will take something like a JPG to put it all back together again.

In Part II we will look more closely at the detail of the work of the JPG.

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