Validation arrangements continue to be risky business

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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.

3 thoughts on “Validation arrangements continue to be risky business”

  1. Excellent. There are two further aspects which we need to pick up on…

    Firstly, as an example of risk, these are not the only places with validated courses that have caught the eye this month – the London Academy of Diplomacy will have given UEA and Stirling grounds to be thankful that their arrangements had already come to an end. Jo Johnston complains that universities won’t validate courses – the original cartel accusation – but who’d blame a university for recalibrating its approach to risk occasionally. That’s bound to leave students in the lurch as a partner gets passed on.

    Secondly, I think OfS are banking on the difference between ‘validated’ and ‘franchised’ to carry a lot of weight in the new system. If a university validates courses at a partner, the course is the partner’s and so are the students. With a franchise, its still the university’s course and the students are directly registered at the university. These distinctions aren’t always hard and fast, but a provider that only has franchised courses will be ‘Registered-Basic’ as it won’t need course designation. Watching Panorama shows why a university will be very wary of that; how will it really know what a partner is doing with a franchised course and its students? This is another reason why ‘Registered-Basic’ looks like a bad option for the sector.

  2. Crysanthemum says:

    Interesting article.

    One thing I would point out is that most University quality assurance systems will struggle to detect this sort of behaviour, because the intent is to deceive. The London College scandal that ended the University of Wales is another example; the issue was that deliberate concealment of this behaviour took place and University systems are not well set up to detect that. Risk-based approaches are supposed to mitigate against this, but they can only go so far. The only way to truly detect this kind of behaviour is to have mystery shopper style students approaching them to see what happens. That kind of activity rarely results in a trusting partnership between the partner and the University.

    I’ll be interested to see precisely where degree awarding powers for OfS goes. It raises the entertaining possibility that OfS could well end up in the same situation!

  3. A well balanced piece.

    A few thoughts:
    (i) Franchise versus Validation
    Mike Ratcliffe (above) is right regarding the franchise/validation false dichotomy. Whether the criterion for the distinction is the ownership of intellectual property, location of student registration or some other factor, it does not change the quality assurance risks for the degree-awarding body.

    (ii) “Cartel” and “anti-competitive” behaviour
    It is absolutely the case that some providers will struggle to get any degree-awarding body to offer them a validation service, if they cannot present (i) a clear picture of robust and competent quality assurance and (ii) a sound business case. These (aspirant) providers will presumably run to the OfS. However, it is far less compelling a case that sound providers cannot secure any validator due to anti-competitive behaviour – more likely that in very niche areas, they cannot secure the a validator with the brand resonance that they’d like.

    (iii) Detecting deception and criminality
    Crysanthemum (above) is absolutely right that ordinary university quality assurance isn’t well placed to directly detect deception, although standard performance markers (retention, progression, completion) will likely provide delayed indicators that not all is well. Due diligence (initial and ongoing) could and possibly should be rather more investigative than is the current norm, and this is a place for some more robust practice – but that comes at a cost of course.

    (iv) Protecting the student experience.
    The current Quality Code places an imperative on the validator to ensure a route to a successful outcome in the case of the breakdown of the partnership – both a reasonable requirement and a significant impediment to carefree validation. That explicit protection may disappear in the next incarnation of the QC, but students should not suffer for having chosen an errant provider, and it is incumbent on the regulator not simply to offer safe haven for such students but minimise the probability that such failures occur.

    (v) High risk providers and the OfS
    The inevitable conclusion is that, if the OfS does secure the degree-awarding powers that HERA empowers it to seek, that the highest-risk providers will congregate there as the validator-of-last-resort. And along will come Panorama and …

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