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Standing up for standards in the new higher education system

The debate about standards in higher education is set to be re-opened following the introduction of a Teaching Excellence Framework and the White Paper's proposals to give OfS responsibility for them.
This article is more than 8 years old

Ant Bagshaw is a Senior Advisor in L.E.K. Consulting’s Global Education Practice and co-editor, with Debbie McVitty, of Influencing Higher Education Policy

Happily, the Higher Education and Research Bill provides us with a definition of standards: “’standards’ means the standards used by
 an institution to ascertain the level of achievement attained by a student undertaking a higher education course provided by it.” 13(2). So that’s clear then? Standards are a measure of the academic level at the point of ‘output’.

But that’s not the only definition the government has in mind. If we turn to the White Paper, we see the use of “demanding quality standards”, “robust standards” and “high quality standards.” We also see that the government intends for the introduction of TEF to: “drive up the standard of teaching in all universities.” We therefore also have a definition which is the standard of the quality provided, the standard of the ‘input’.

Does it matter? Well it matters in one sense because it would be nice to be clear about what we mean when we say standards. In the current Quality Code, Part A relates to academic standards (the output) while Part B relates to ‘assuring and enhancing of academic quality’. Part B relates mostly to the ‘inputs’ of teaching, resources, student support etc.

Let’s say that we can maintain a semantic distinction between quality as input on the one hand, and standards as output on the other. Does the Bill represent any change from the current status quo? The White Paper explains to us that: “The OfS will have a statutory duty to monitor and assure quality and standards across the sector, extending the duty that HEFCE has solely for HEFCE-funded providers to all registered HE institutions” (p22). This is followed-through in the Bill with provision for the appointment by OfS of a quality assessment body, and for OfS to introduce “a scheme to give ratings to English higher education providers regarding the quality of, and standards applied to, the higher education that they provide where they apply for such a rating.”

This doesn’t sound too different to the current arrangements whereby QAA, under contract to HEFCE, conducts periodic reviews where teams make judgements about whether institutions meet threshold standards, and whether quality is suitable. Reviews also make judgements about information (something which increasingly falls under the purview of the Competition and Markets Authority) and on enhancement which is related to the quality area, essentially whether institutions are actively trying to make provision better.

Over the threshold

This may be where it gets interesting. Current judgements are based on threshold standards, but that may all be about to change… I suspect that if you read the 2009 Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee exchange between the vice chancellors of Oxford (Hood) and Oxford Brookes (Beer), you – like me – would find it hard to forget. The VCs did their very best to preserve the sector line that standards are broadly comparable across the board, assured by the external examiner system.

And so I was struck by the passages in HEFCE’s revised operating model for quality assessment about the renewed call for standardising standards in the form of a national external examiner system and the development of approved degree classification algorithms. The 2009 report concluded that: “so long as there is a classification system it is essential that it should categorise all degrees against a consistent set of standards across all higher education institutions in England.” However, it went on to note “concerns that the higher education sector neither sees the need for this step nor is willing to implement it.”

Come 2016, and the HEFCE proposals again recognises that it’s not the whole sector which is cock-a-hoop at the idea, but that there have been calls for reopening the issue. HEFCE’s position is:

“that there is a student and public interest in providing better evidence of the reasonable comparability of academic output standards across the UK, particularly at the pass-fail borderline for all awards but also at the 2:1-2:2 borderline for classified undergraduate degrees, and the equivalent in a grade point average (GPA) system.”

From that follows the conclusion that providers which fail to make use of the acceptable [HEFCE’s word] algorithms for degree classifications will have to explain themselves to the funding council through the assurance processes. Now this is something of a leap from the consultation feedback in which: “The emphasis of many responses was that the ‘guidance’ should not be mandatory or prescriptive, but guidelines for best practice, with ‘example’ algorithms for those providers considering changing their current approach.”

Having delegated the task of developing common classification algorithms to the sector’s representative bodies, HEFCE has taken the pin out of the grenade and walked away, saving itself – probably – from the worst of any damage. But are the vested interests any different to those in 2009? Surely Oxford’s VC wishes to retain the system where the institutional brand matters more than any individual student result, and for Brookes to maintain the fragile assertion that the current system establishes a national threshold.

Pincer movement

Why does this matter? When we take first the HEFCE reach into institutional autonomy for standards, and then we find provision in the Bill for the ratings of absolute standards – not just the meeting (or otherwise) of threshold standards – then universities will start to get seriously worried about the threat to autonomy. I wrote elsewhere on Wonkhe about three ways the White Paper promised to redefine fundamental approaches to design and delivery of higher education: the changes proposed are far from trivial.

There are plenty of good reasons to want comparability between degrees, such as reducing the impact of provider choice on student outcomes (the high-performing student at the institution with a less good reputation with employers). This would particularly help students who might only have a limited range of local institutions, or who didn’t appreciate that certain employers might only be looking for graduates from a narrow range of universities. But those arguments will have to be weighed against a sector which likes to retain its diversity and where institutions are generally allowed to muddle along in their own ways.

Elsewhere on Wonkhe, in responding to the HEFCE assurance paper, Paul Greatrix concluded that: “the activities set out here represent a significant challenge to the autonomy of universities in setting, defining and assuring standards.” If providers are going to fight the multiple threats to individual institutional autonomy, and let’s assume they will, they may need stronger arguments than ‘we like it the way it is’ to shake off this latest challenge. Then again, maybe this time the sector will joyfully embrace a system of national comparability for degree outcomes with transparent comparison of standards across the board. I won’t be holding my breath.

One response to “Standing up for standards in the new higher education system

  1. Shouldn’t this be read against s.66 of the Bill, which seems to allow the Secretary of State to make grants to OfS on terms and conditions ‘framed by reference to particular courses of study’?

    He must still ‘have regard’ to ‘the need to protect academic freedom’, including the freedom of institutions ‘to determine the content of particular courses and the manner in which
    they are taught, supervised or assessed’. But ‘having regard’ is weasel language in law.

    There is bags of room here for institutions to try to sidestep requirements to comply with externally imposed algorithms by adjusting the way they allocate marks or points within their assessments, but what if the Secretary of State seeks to control OfS’s impositions by framing ever more draconian conditions of grant ‘by reference to particular courses of study’.

    There could be ‘standards wars’ to match the long-running quality wars.

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