Yesterday QAA announced it would be lending its previously protected logo to higher education institutions with a ‘confidence’ judgement, or those that had sufficiently changed their practices in response to a ‘limited confidence’ judgement. Anthony McClaran, chief executive of QAA is reported in Times Higher Education as saying such a mark will ‘improve public understanding of standards and quality in higher education’. I would like to question this assertion, along with the overall scheme.
The regulatory fog surrounding UK higher education makes quality assurance difficult to navigate. I do feel there is weight to the idea of simplifying the system and promoting the body that decides which institutions have degree awarding powers, and how well use them. However, this quality mark pushes us further in a dangerous direction; one that forgets some of the necessary complexities of the sector and risks jumping in the deep end of a ‘consumer style’ market without testing the water at all.
Anyone who has actually managed to get their head around the way the regulatory system works in UK HE would probably agree that QAA are quite toothless on the majority of issues. In principle, it is important that they exist. The Quality Code is handy for reference and a looming Institutional Review is powerful leverage for those trying to create change on the ground. That said, the majority of established higher education institutions in the UK know what needs to be done to achieve a ‘confidence’ judgement at Institutional Review and so that nearly always happens.
No sector leader will have read the quality mark announcement and genuinely worried about how well they might recruit without it, or how it might impact on internal processes because almost everyone is going to have it. Even on their own website, QAA state ‘Once granted, degree awarding powers and university title cannot be easily removed’.
Whilst there is definitely another discussion to be had around that issue, the key thing to take from it is that the QAA is not currently designed to have an ‘approval’ function in the way that other kitemarks depend on. It is a regulatory body tied up in an overly complex net of funding, politics and passing-of-the-buck. But principally it should be safeguarding the quality of our higher education system as a ‘public good’ and that best happens through guidance, review, recommendation and educational oversight. It does not happen through a ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘please try harder’ judgement’ (that is very much the stick, not the carrot, and it is hardly ever used). A baseline of good practice is researched and published, standards are reviewed and support is provided to identify and rectify areas for concern; that is the point of a publically funded regulatory body.
Kitemarking is a consumer tool that is designed to bring products to the forefront of the market and positively support their brand. Without digressing in to the issue of ‘students not being consumers’, we can surely still agree that the ‘product’ has never been an institution as a whole, but the actual teaching & experience at course level. Which applicant or current student is going to be better informed by knowing that their institution, just like almost every other one, has a QAA stamp? Surely if they know what QAA is, this knowledge is implicit because of the fact they are able to study there at all. How does a logo better inform them about the quality of the teaching & learning they can expect?
With this in mind, what will the kitemark really be for? The clarification of quality assurance processes for applicants? No, this scheme does nothing to simplify or promote those. The firm and clear assurance of quality of an entire institution? Perhaps, but 6 years is a long interval if the quality mark is only dependent on the judgement of the last Institutional Review (and it could be even longer if proposals for a ‘risk based’ system are implemented).
What this comes down to is the newly free usage of a logo that was previously protected and jealously guarded. Framed this way, you can see why it makes sense to liberalise rules about its use as it will undoubtedly strengthen the brand.
But if QAA want to stand with a giant stamp of approval for the ‘products’ in our higher education ‘market’, that stamp should really mean something. Because we are all educated and practical enough to know that being a high-quality institution with degree-awarding powers isn’t as simple as having a positive judgement at a singular point.
The kitemark plan is misrepresentative of the sector-wide consensus about what we understand quality to mean and how the organs of assurance should operate. It is also a meaningless but somewhat clever way of raising the profile of QAA whilst pretending that it will invite HEIs to aspire to higher levels of quality. In my opinion, no one will be better informed about the standard of an institution, its teaching or how the assessment of its quality came about simply by the use of a quality mark. Because real quality is not the same thing as branding.