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QAA put on notice

Some very big news from HEFCE out today. "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."
This article is more than 7 years old

Mark is founder and Editor in Chief of Wonkhe

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.

11 responses to “QAA put on notice

  1. “OFSTED? Wonkhe? NUS?” – you’re being optimistic. More likely Pearson. We reckon we could scrobble together a team in our open plan office – I mean, if it’s risk-based, and we decide the balance of risks, we could be quids in.

  2. Not so fast, tabloid man!

    The QAA is on a contract, and always has been. When this contract runs out, a new contract is required. This needs to be procured fairly and transparently, and HEFCE are here going the extra mile in ensuring that the (newly diverse) sector’s voice is heard.

    Here’s the last contract (which runs out this academic year:

    The letter to VCs linked to the announcement ( is a little clearer on this.

  3. I think it’s a mistake to view this as just a paperwork exercise. And you’re calling me tabloid, but you’re the one who started (or is at least using) the QAmageddon hashtag!

  4. I just don’t think it is the huge issue that you’ve painted it and wanted to imply that that some of the coverage has been a little sensational.

    But yes, guilty as charged on #QAmageddon . We’re all in the gutter but some of us are looking down the drain.

  5. Surprised no one’s linked it to cessation of HEFCE funding for HEA, also 2017. Looks like a complete re-drawing of the Quality Enhacement & Quality Assurance landscape.

  6. I found the switch in language from ‘quality assurance’ to ‘quality assessment’ quite interesting too…

  7. As I have pointed out on twitter, the UK Quality Code as intellectual property is owned by QAA. There would also be TUPE implications potentially for FT QAA staff – but the army of reviewers are freelance (effectively on zero hours contracts!). I don’t see QAA disappearing, but I do see a new name and new goverance. I am surprised the contract is not being organised into parcels (eg one contract for publicly-funded universities one for HE in FE, one for private providers – all using the same *core* criteria but different sector specific criteria. And indeed there could be an ‘export’ contract for UK Quality Assurance/Assessment in overseas markets of overseas providers.) I can see QAA becoming a SuperRegulator and contract manager overseeing QA franchises. It might be argued that Pearson offer too many awards in the UK to be a regulator, but who knows, they might finish up being allowed to mark their own homework. And everybody else’s.

  8. #QAconspiracytheories

    I think a lot more is being made of this than is warranted. But I suspect HEFCE anticipated this when it prepared answers to FAQs alongside the press release.

    Reading between the lines, there is actually a series of admissions and acknowledgements going on here: that the funding councils have not been following (their own) best procurement practices in not undertaking open tendering for this contract at any stage; that the changes to the review process in England consulted on in 2012 – and only implemented from 2013 – are not adequate for the rapidly changing environment, especially uncontrolled student numbers/loans; and that the 1992 statutory responsibility for quality assessment is one of the few solid legal bases for HEFCE’s regulatory activities. This is simply a situation that HEFCE, HEFCW and DELNI couldn’t allow to continue.

    The use of the term quality ‘assessment’ rather than ‘assurance’ (let alone ‘enhancement’) in the press release is significant, but only in that it relates to the specific statutory responsibility, that is, the review of quality and standards in those providing HE. In other words, the Code of Practice – what used to be called ‘the academic infrastructure’ – and various other QAA activities are not directly subject to the contracts with the funding councils. In effect the institutional members pay for this through their subscriptions.

    Comparisons with the HEA may also not be all that relevant. Remember, the UK needs to sustain its reputation for the lucrative international market, and it only takes one maverick institution to spoil things for everyone else. The QAA has a strong international reputation but is vulnerable at home (maybe with the exception of Scotland) because it is associated with the ‘old world’ that we are rapidly leaving behind. If it can show it can adapt, any new pretenders will have a hard job putting a better tender together.

  9. It’s an interesting move. It’s probably sensible to review the tendering for ‘quality assessment’, but it does raise plenty of other questions.

    Foremost is the continued absence of a HE Bill and sorting out of the regulation of HE. While the 1992 Act has been fairly robust in allowing a scaffolding of regulation, there is a general sense that this is pretty precarious in some places. Private providers is a pretty obvious issue: the funding councils’ remit for ‘quality assessment’ is for institutions they fund.

    Government has used other levers to require engagement: requiring course designation, you need an Educational oversight review, require HTS and you need a Review for Specific Course Designation. Of course, if you offer HE that isn’t going to get course designation (Say if it was PGT or simply outside the fee regime – like New College of the Humanities) and you don’t want tier 4 students, you don’t need regulating.

    As Hugh Jones has reminded us on his blog, at first HEFCE did the ‘quality assessment’ itself. Teaching Quality Assessment (later Subject Review) saw pretty much all provision assessed. Although a giant pain in the neck, it did accomplish the task of ensuring what David Watson has called a ‘controlled reputational range’. Although subjects were assessed against their own aims, there was a lot of assurance that the institutions that had been under CNAA did know what they were doing, and, although attempts to fund on the basis of quality foundered, it did show that there were great courses throughout the sector. Although I treasure a battered copy of HEFCE Circular 3/93, most of us were glad when David Blunkett was persuaded that it wasn’t necessary.

    For HEIs, the pattern is now established of Quality Audit, Institutional Review, Higher Education Review, checking processes against delivery but, I think, with diminishing returns after all these years. There are still some pockets of excitement: branch campuses and validation/franchises for example, so it’s not completely done. Differentiating on types of activity undertaken would get a form of risk basis.

    For the new providers, however, maybe we need the discipline we had back in the early 90s: quality assessment of the provision – subject specialists in classrooms, reading work, discussing pedagogy with the staff. But, of course, that would take a further contrivance* unless we get an HE Bill…

    * What about requiring for course designation or HTS that a provider has to accept £50 in funding from HEFCE, that then means the regulatory regime can follow? Condition of that £50 means becoming a QAA and OIA subscriber (which will cost rather more than £50) But we still need to get some regulation for the likes of NCH…

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