Some very big news from HEFCE out today. In their words:
The higher education (HE) funding bodies in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are to seek views on future approaches to the assessment of quality in higher education. Based on the feedback we receive, we will then invite tenders under a joint procurement exercise. This will ensure transparency and demonstrate value for money.
You can read the full release here. Without mentioning the Quality Assurance Agency once, HEFCE have just thrown a potentially devastating grenade at the agency. For the first time, QAA will need to bid for the work to quality assure higher education in the UK. People often forget that it is HEFCE’s statutory duty to assess quality and they merely choose to outsource this work to a third party – up to now the work has been done by the QAA. The QAA itself does not exist in statute and if they did not win the tender then they would need to largely wind up.
Of course right now it’s doubtful that there would be anyone better placed to do this work than QAA, but it will be fascinating to see who else fancies designing a new agency to pick up where QAA left off. Ofsted? Wonkhe? NUS?
A ‘big think’ is about to get underway in the sector – and it’s probably about time. A new regulatory regime needs to be put in place and by the looks of it, HEFCE is grabbing the problem by its horns and attempting to put something together regardless of high politics – which is indeed their responsibility. Such potentially big moves are also testament to what the sector can actually do itself – so much policymaking has been devolved from the state as is entirely appropriate – it is the sector which ‘owns’ its standards, and HEFCE is flexing its muscles in that regard. But how to square the circle of sector ‘ownership’ when the sector is now so diverse? Indeed, is there even a coherent higher education sector in the UK? With further devolution on the cards on top of (diverging) HE reform in England and Wales, and Scotland’s settlement still in doubt – all these questions and more are in the mix.
And having already cut most of its funding to the Higher Education Academy earlier this year, anyone still in receipt of HEFCE funding to run agencies, services or ‘programmes’ will be starting to sweat.
Today a process of designing a new system of quality, standards, assurance, enhancement, engagement (and more besides) has begun. Whatever the outcome of the tender process, this is a game-changing move.
Update 1: you can read QAA’s response here.
Update 2: Derfel Owen – formerly of QAA – has posted some characteristically measured thoughts and asks some key outstanding questions that arise from today’s announcement.
Update 3: An interesting response from Million Plus here reacting to the announcement by not-so-subtly suggesting that this is a power grab by HEFCE. To summarise their release, M+ are not against the ‘review’ itself, but against a) Ofsted-style inspection regimes and b) HEFCE using this review as an excuse to do more regulating themselves. Both appear on the face of it to be straw men in today’s context, but time will tell. Vice Chancellors of every faction will be watching this one closely.
Update 4: A silly thing perhaps, but the Twitter hashtag #QAmageddon is being used by some to describe today’s events. People may not yet fully understand all the implications, but they know it’s big news for the sector.
Update 5: The Russell Group have responded to today’s news. For them it is another opportunity to push for less regulation and bureaucracy for their institutions, which is their standard line.