We’re writing this less than a week after Panorama exposed the latest “student loan scandal”, and already it feels like very old news. A part of this feeling comes from the fact that a very similar – if larger scale – story had been broken before, by Andrew McGettigan, in 2014.
The original story resulted in an investigation from Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, and in QAA aligning the specific course designation process with Higher Education Review at the request of the then secretary of state.
Then, as now, the path of least resistance was to see a problem with private HE recruitment practice – a convenient way to ignore wider issues with the way validation works as a form of quality assurance, the way such arrangements are managed and regulated, and the way changes designed to open up the market have increased the likelihood of similar issues arising in future.
We don’t want to be writing about a similar investigation in 2020, but – alas – it seems that little has been put in place to prevent the same issue re-occurring: all in the name of student choice and open markets.
Valedictory: A (very) short history of validation
Studying in one institution for a degree that is awarded by another has a distinguished history. All but a handful of our most prestigious universities began by offering degrees validated by the University of London or Victoria University. Initially, the validating body acted in a similar way to the Examination Schools at Oxford – a central authority offering administrative oversight over examinations, with students being prepared for these tests by a number of affiliated colleges.
In 1858, the University of London abandoned the idea of affiliated colleges, allowing students prepared by any institution (or none) to take their exams in the hope of being granted a degree. This single move probably did more to establish the sector as we knew it than anything until Robbins or the Further and Higher Education Act in 1992.
Delivering education validated by an external source has (for the most part – there’s a handful of fascinating exceptions) been the only route to gaining degree awarding powers and university title in England.
Value: The purpose of validation
Such arrangements rely on the strengths of the quality assurance process of the validator institution, and the willingness of the validated to comply with them. As Ant Bagshaw noted on Wonkhe, this is a huge deal: 171 SCITTs (School Centred Initial Teacher Training providers), 219 FE colleges and 244 Alternative Providers rely on validation arrangements to deliver HE courses.
In validating a course, an institution lends a portion of its legitimacy to a competitor. In return, it receives a financial benefit, the ability to reach new groups of learners, and wider partnership benefits. Lending institutional legitimacy also adds the imprimatur of the (internationally valued) UK higher education sector to a course – delivered by an institution in the sector but not quite of it.
In the main, these are happy and mutually beneficial relationships, but occasionally we witness cases like those exposed at the Greenwich School of Management (GSM) or Grafton College.
These demonstrate a number of quality assurance failures – issues with admissions, assessment, student support. These are exactly the kinds of issues that you would expect to see covered in a validation agreement, and it is of little surprise that the experienced validating organisations involved (Roehampton, Plymouth, the Open University and Pearson – though the latter is a slightly different form of validation) withdrew their validation or launched investigations as soon as issues were exposed.
It’s tempting to play the blame game, but in practice, nearly all of the blame attaches itself to the (independent) criminals who attempt to subvert the system. But from institutional to systemic level – some things can be done to ensure that such scandals are much more unlikely in future.
Invalidation: Managing the risk of validation
At a national level, validation (or partnership) with other providers is covered by an expectation of the Quality Code, which forms part of the baseline requirements all HE providers are required to meet. Validators remain responsible for the standards of the degree and, depending on whether the arrangement is franchised or non-franchised, varying aspects of the academic experience.
Furthermore, alternative providers that require access to the Student Loans Company are obliged to undertake the Higher Education Review (HER AP) and annual monitoring. This is what is described as “risk based” quality assurance – the more risk involved for the government, the more oversight is required.
The validator takes a certain amount of risk – if the BBC exposes apparent malpractice at Grafton College this is bad news for the OU and Pearson – both of which have in effect vouched for the quality of provision (and thus quality assurance) at Grafton for the courses in question.
And there is also a risk for the whole sector – Grafton and GSM both appear on the HEFCE register, which allows for students to apply for financial support from the government for some courses, and that both institutions are assessed by the QAA, provide data to HESA, and are members of the OIA. Grafton College also holds a Provisional TEF award.
Revalidation: Changes to the system
At face value, validation provides an anti-competitive solution in a system that is being encouraged to provide more significant student choice. To manage standards, partners are required to align with their validator’s existing quality systems, such as grading systems and module credits.
This all changes, of course, with the newly passed Higher Education and Research Act (HERA). HERA brought in two major regulatory changes to counter the anti-competitive nature of validation; the provision for institutions to apply directly for university title and degree awarding powers without a track record (based on validation or franchise arrangement).
Both GSM and Grafton College would be eligible initially for the Basic category of the OfS Register under broadly similar conditions – though, like all other institutions, they would be expected to re-register. Although in general, students at Basic institutions cannot register for government financial support, those on a course delivered under a validation arrangement are eligible for fee and maintenance loans.
From there, there would be few barriers to either gaining degree awarding powers and university title. Both have some track record of delivering HE – although that is not required in the new system – and both have been able to present themselves in such a way that existing providers are happy to vouch for them.
Variance – the OfS as validator
Ironically, the first institution to be granted degree awarding powers de novo under HERA will be OfS itself. As the “validator of last resort”, the OfS can be empowered to step in to assure the quality of courses where validation has been withdrawn or degree awarding powers removed. It may, for completeness, also step in where it is felt that there is a need to cover more niche, specialist subject, areas and/or innovative delivery models.
OfS has the potential to become the academic equivalent of the “bad bank” that holds the sub-prime assets hived off from the financial bodies we nationalised back during the 2008 crisis. It could award the qualifications where the greatest concerns over standards have historically been raised, where institutions and relationships have failed, based on the provision that no-one else will put their name to.
There is nothing in the new regulations that could prevent the familiar scandals reoccurring. But what will change is the experience of the affected students – not everyone who applies to or studies at Grafton is a part of the fraud perpetrated by the unrecognised agents featured on Panorama, many just want to study and learn.
The swift removal of validation in the past would leave these students unable to learn, and out of pocket. In future, they may end up holding a certificate bearing the name of the sector regulator itself.