Coregulation is alive and well – in Scotland

Chris Hale rightly identified in his article for Wonkhe the challenges of the coregulation in the English system back in March, highlighting in particular the perennial risk of regulatory capture and an ever-closer (ever more-cosy?) working relationship between stakeholders, completely devoid of challenge.

My experience of the Scottish system is that coregulation – or partnership working as we prefer to think of it – is more creative, and can achieve more for the sector’s students, than a command and control model in which it is assumed a single regulator knows best. This is a flawed premise in a system so heavily dependent on human knowledge and exchange. Such a system is also capable of working more closely with the grain of higher education and ultimately providing more useful and nuanced information for students seeking to identify the best place in which to pursue their studies.

Partnership in Scotland

The enhancement-led approach to quality in Scotland is founded on a partnership model involving students, providers, funders, and the quality body (QAA Scotland). This partnership has been in place since 2003 and has stood the various tests of the intervening years – we periodically check the model remains fit for purpose through a series of internal and external evaluations, with the outcomes available for all in the partnership to scrutinise.

In a relatively recent adaptation to our sector-level mechanisms, we have created the Quality Arrangements for Scottish Higher Education (QASHE) Group. The group is managed jointly by QAA Scotland and Universities Scotland, and its membership includes all parties to the original Quality Enhancement Framework. It provides a ‘neutral’ space – in which all partners have equal voice – to focus on the best interests of Scottish higher education in the light of regulatory shifts in England and those remaining UK-wide dimensions such as the Quality Code, TNE and matters of common concern including academic integrity.

Supporting student partnership

It’s true that there are asymmetries in resources and ability to engage which can make it tricky for students to really fulfil a role as equal partners. In the Scottish sector, we have sought to address this potential imbalance by providing the developmental and ongoing support to ensure students can be just as influential as the other stakeholders.

Key to this is the organisation known as student partnerships in quality Scotland (or ‘sparqs’) who, along with QAA Scotland and the higher education institutions themselves, have worked to ensure the role of students within the enhancement-led approach is highly regarded and carefully protected. What this means in practice, for example, is that students and staff are equally represented on the group leading the current Enhancement Theme so that students have a strong voice in scoping, developing, implementing and evaluating the impact of the theme; one of the central elements of the Quality Enhancement Framework.

Constructive challenge

Perhaps a surprising feature of the Scottish arrangements – given the emphasis on partnership working – is the extent to which they continue to provide constructive challenge for the sector. This happens through peer review, evaluation and analysis. The arrangements prioritise the value of recognising and addressing practices that could be improved, with encouragement to share potential solutions between providers or to identify these from outside the sector, across the UK or internationally.

Enhancement led is not code for ‘unchallenging’. Quite the contrary. In my experience the Enhancement Led Institutional Review Process for example, is rigorous, searching and revealing in a way unmatched by audit based approaches. It is sign of the sector’s maturity and health that constructive challenge is both welcomed and used to drive improvement throughout the review cycle – not just in the run up to, and immediate aftermath of, a review visit.

Shared understanding

In Scotland, we are proud that higher education’s whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Those who move here to work are often struck by the depth and authenticity of partnership working based on a shared understanding and appreciation of individual and joint responsibility, tempered by constructive challenge. In a coregulated sector genuine partnership working can continue to achieve more for our students – and for our staff – than we could ever do by working separately.

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