As QAA celebrates its quarter century, the Scottish sector prepares to mark 20 years of its enhancement-led approach to quality.
The Quality Enhancement Framework (QEF) emerged, phoenix-like, from the attempted launch of a UK-wide quality review method.
The failure of Academic Review to fully fly provided the catalyst for all stakeholders in the Scottish higher education sector to work in partnership with the aim of identifying an approach to quality that would fit the Scottish context.
It’s not all about the base
It helped that the previous quality review processes had demonstrated Scottish higher education was in pretty good shape. Each of the established higher education institutions had experienced two rounds of institution-level academic audit and one cycle of external subject review. Evidently there would be diminishing returns from re-examining the baseline and much more value for students and the global reputation of Scottish HE in working collaboratively to enhance practice across the whole sector.
The QEF partnership shared a vision to enable enhancement by supporting diversity, engaging students in quality and promoting innovation. A clear international focus ensured the sector would be outward facing. The intention being to learn from best practice wherever it was found and work collaboratively to develop new approaches to address future challenges, delivering high quality higher education for all students studying here.
It was also recognised that an enhancement-led approach needed a review method that itself would be enhancement-led to ensure the developmental and review elements would be mutually reinforcing. And so the Enhancement Themes and Enhancement-led Institutional Review (ELIR) were born.
A coherent framework
These two elements sat within a Quality Enhancement Framework of five dimensions in all, the others being student engagement, institution-led review and an agreement to provide public information about quality and standards. The coherence of the QEF is one of its most positive and important features – the five elements intersect and interact with each other.
Crucially the review method is not a standalone process, it provides a sector-wide intelligence base to inform and target enhancement activity, alongside a set of judgements recognising good and less good practice within individual institutions.
The engagement of all partners in the creation of the QEF meant everyone had a stake in its successful implementation. Staff and students, QAA and the Scottish Funding Council would work in concert.
Before this sounds a little too much like all being for the best in the best of all possible worlds, it’s important to acknowledge that the arrangements also received criticism (mostly constructive!). Having a QEF spanning both review and developmental activity – not to mention the proactive engagement of students in all aspects – was regarded as radical back in 2003. Some wondered if the arrangements would work – ‘is it possible to review “enhancement”?’ was a fairly common question.
The Enhancement Themes also met with a certain amount of scepticism in some quarters. There were concerns about how Themes were selected and whether they would lead to uniformity rather than respecting diversity amongst the institutions. This was addressed by the establishment of the Scottish Higher Education Enhancement Committee (SHEEC), a forum for the vice-principals to oversee the enhancement element of the QEF, alongside student members and observers from the QEF partners.
The pace of the early Themes was a little too fast and furious to enable deep engagement or alignment with institutional strategies. With the agreement of SHEEC, the pace was steadied from two Themes per year to one substantial Theme spanning three years. This enabled more collective alignment between the sector endeavours and individual institutional focus. As experience grew, this typically meant one year being used to scope the Theme and commission research pieces, a second year aimed at institutional engagement in sector-level events and activities, and a third year to enable implementation of ideas within institutions and evaluation of impact.
The establishment of SHEEC secured senior engagement with the Enhancement Themes but there were challenges around wider permeation throughout institutions. The Theme Leaders’ Group, was created as a sector network for those leading Theme activity within individual institutions. It was later extended to include equal numbers of staff and students.
While there are real benefits in the whole sector focusing on a single Theme, to enable deeper collaboration between institutions on detailed topics, “collaborative clusters” were established. This enabled smaller groups of institutions to work in close partnership on topics of mutual priority linked to the overarching Theme.
A little more interaction
As arrangements matured, interest grew in drawing more immediately on the ELIR outcomes. Where there were recurring recommendations or commendations, this provided an opportunity for institutions to work collectively and at pace. Annual Focus On projects were created covering topics including Feedback from Assessment, Graduate Skills, the PGR experience and Technology Enhanced Learning. The last focus topic took place in 2019-20, providing helpful support for the urgent pivot to online delivery and assessment brought about by the pandemic.
Over its two decades, the approach has remained future facing, supporting institutions to anticipate directions in HE and adjustments in the student population. For example the Evidence for Enhancement Theme supported the sector to address the age of big data, ensuring evidence would be collected, analysed and evaluated in ways that are meaningful to enhancement priorities.
Practices learned about or developed during the Themes, Collaborative Clusters and Focus On projects are picked up by institutions and influence sector expectations so that each ELIR cycle, the bar is raised.
While Scotland benefited, the enhancement approach influenced other systems too, for example enhancement themes have been implemented in South Africa and New Zealand.
20 more years?
As it celebrates this significant milestone, the enhancement-led approach may not be perfect but it has achieved many benefits, not least of which is the strong support of the sector combined with a positive set of results across the increasing range of external metrics and measures. This provides rich intelligence, enabling the sector to know itself and to learn from practice inside and outside Scotland.
The first external evaluation of the QEF, commissioned in 2003 by the Scottish Funding Council from a research team at Lancaster University, identified a striking feature of the approach as its commitment to the long term with the creation of a stable ‘playing field’ so institutions could focus on improving the quality of learning and teaching without the distraction of transient external evaluation scales and approaches.
A key strength of the approach has been its ability to evaluate and continue adapting without losing the overall coherence of the Quality Enhancement Framework.