The House of Lords Industry and Regulators Committee report into the work of the Office for Students, published last week, is a forensic examination of how the current regulatory approach in England is working in practice.
Over the past six months, the inquiry, and now its report have brought to the fore the topic of the English quality system’s infrastructure within that regulatory approach, shining a light on what is often a technical topic, bringing it to the attention of much wider audiences than is typical for quality assurance matters.
The committee’s report shows there is significant disquiet in the sector about the status quo, with the current quality system having “fallen out of alignment with international standards and called into question the international reputation of the sector”. The report chapter on quality and standards includes some welcome recommendations on how to rectify these issues.
QAA’s new Quality in England briefing published today shows that, if the right changes are made, not only can these issues be rectified, but a reformed external quality system could hold the key to unlocking policy progress for current and future governments.
The external quality system should be in place to check, assure, and improve the quality of higher education provision. It works in tandem with providers’ own quality assurance processes to instil trust and confidence in the quality of UK higher education for students, parents, employers, international stakeholders and policymakers.
Despite its low media profile, the quality system has stealthily become a debatable policy area, with interventions like student number caps touted as a mechanism “to prevent the growth of low quality provision.” But what public discourse hasn’t done, until now, is joined the dots between a well-functioning quality system, and the ability to deliver current and future governments’ policy priorities.
See, the quality system doesn’t have to be merely a necessary bureaucracy that ticks boxes and catches poor quality provision (whatever we decide that may be). When well-designed and effectively operated, it can accelerate policy progress. Getting quality right aids us in producing skilled graduates for an evolving labour market, enabling the viability and competitiveness of vocational pathways, facilitating lifelong learning transitions, and reinforcing the international influence of higher education. This ideal might feel distant, but the upcoming general election offers a chance for the incoming government to bolster the English quality system to support their higher education ambitions.
Transparency and trust
Trust in higher education has – rightly or wrongly – been waning in recent years. At the heart of this is a diminishing belief that higher education will continue to provide students with what they expect and support them to positively contribute to the economy and wider society when they graduate. This has real policy implications – demand for skilled graduates isn’t going to go away, and our international reputation is crucial to supporting international recruitment and collaboration, and thus economic growth.
But, in the current system, there is a distinct lack of public, impartial information that can be used to alleviate these concerns and demonstrate the high-quality provision that is in abundance across the sector. Instead, truly comprehensive information is typically available only where a regulatory intervention has been required, something that generally denotes a problem. This approach diverges from other UK and international education sectors and risks dependence on less reliable and transparent information sources such as league tables or raw outcomes data. Elsewhere there are mechanisms that offer transparent, current, information about providers’ quality gathered through independent assessment – so that students, parents, employers, and international stakeholders can make informed decisions about quality based on evidence rather than rhetoric.
Beyond the baseline
The English quality system is missing a trick by only focusing on the baseline.
Requiring all providers to meet a minimum standard of quality is vital, but so too is creating a culture to incentivise continuous improvement (or enhancement as we quality bods like to talk about). Without an embedded enhancement focus – much like the UK’s devolved nations – there is a risk the sector grows stagnant and fails to meet the evolving landscape that students are graduating into. By formalising the role of enhancement in the quality system, policymakers can trust that providers are working all year round to ensure their provision is futureproofed against technological developments like AI, is breaking down barriers to opportunity and levelling up local areas, and is sufficiently equipping graduates with the requisite skills they need for the labour market.
To facilitate these reforms to the English quality system, the unaddressed issue of existing regulatory burden must be tackled, particularly for colleges and small and specialist providers with small quality and regulatory teams. Recent UUK-commissioned research demonstrates the sheer extent of the regulatory burden – and even with this amount of work we still don’t have any of the transparent, up-to-date information that would instil trust and maintain the English sector’s reputation. Providers are beholden to multiple oversight bodies – their reporting requirements should be aligned to avoid duplication and create a regulatory landscape that services an overall need and reduces burden.
These suggested reforms to the English quality system are outlined in a QAA policy briefing published today. This heralds the start of a series of briefs over the autumn which aim to outline how quality interacts with some of the key policy debates – such as around degree apprenticeships, lifelong learning, and funding. Though it is an often overlooked aspect of the infrastructure of higher education delivery, the quality system holds the potential to unlock policy progress for an incoming government if the right reforms are made.