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Quality enhancement at a crossroads

The Higher Education Academy’s Annual Conference this week signals its tenth year as the UK’s quality enhancement agency for teaching and learning. The focus of the conference is ‘Preparing for learning futures’ over the next decade. Given significant cuts to the Academy’s budget over the next two years, the conference focus will likely be as much about the HEA’s future as about the learning futures in the title. In this piece, Robin Middlehurst looks at the important challenges now faced by the Academy, sector and Government and presents the key choices that now need to made.
This article is more than 9 years old

Robin Middlehurst is a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe and a former Professor of Higher Education at Kingston University.

The Higher Education Academy’s Annual Conference this week marks its tenth year as the UK’s quality enhancement agency for teaching and learning. The focus of the conference is on ‘Preparing for learning futures’ over the next decade. Given significant funding council cuts to the Academy’s budget over the next two years (reducing by £13m down to zero public funding by 2017) the conference focus will likely be as much about the HEA’s future and its ability to continue to champion and promote quality enhancement as about potential ‘learning futures’ across higher and further education.

Two big papers

For its tenth anniversary, the HEA is publishing two interesting papers on quality enhancement. One covers the history of quality enhancement at national level since the 1990s (What price quality enhancement? by Professor Roger Brown, former CEO of the Higher Education Quality Council).

The other looks forward, identifying the political and policy agendas that will need to be addressed, particularly in England, in relation to the assurance and enhancement of quality over the next decade (Quality, quantity or diversity? The next ten years of higher education change in England by Andy Westwood, CEO of GuildHE and member of wonkhe’s Board).

These two papers raise important questions about the potential sustainability of the quality enhancement agenda at national level. The reasons for this include:

  • The continuing dominance of disciplinary research as the driver of institutional hierarchies, rankings and reputation which neatly converges with the drivers of hierarchies of recognition and profile for academic staff.  Teaching excellence remains a second cousin to research excellence despite recent advances in recognition at an individual level;
  • The separation of quality assurance from quality enhancement (except in Scotland) and the preferred alignment of assurance with accountability and regulation (particularly in England).  This often breeds tensions and turf-wars between agencies that can cut across quality enhancement efforts;
  • The perverse and conflicting consequences of a hoped-for consumer-led quality enhancement agenda, driven on the one hand by higher student expectations linked to higher fees, and on the other by competition between providers offering different kinds of value.  Homogenisation, lack of innovation and the undermining of post-graduate and life-long learning opportunities are the potential dangers as the 3-year undergraduate model becomes the dominant one for funding, mode of study and investment;
  • The assumptions that have become hard-wired into the funding and marketing of higher education, namely that an undergraduate degree (alone) will deliver you economic and life-chances that will re-pay your level of investment.  This means that the quality enhancement agenda can become ever-more firmly linked to issues of employability and value for money as measured by short-term, narrow ROI measures.

The future of HEA and quality enhancement

These two papers highlight strategic issues that go beyond the remit of the HEA and illustrate the political and policy context into which the HEA’s quality enhancement efforts have to be set. More direct guidance to the Academy is offered in the Independent Review of the Higher Education Academy (Capita Consulting) published in June by HEFCE.

This latest evaluation of the HEA’s record on quality enhancement demonstrates progress since the last evaluation (commissioned in 2007) particularly in relation to furthering the professionalisation of individual teachers; in providing a framework around accreditation of professional development and in supporting institutions to develop this within their own organisations (p.18).

The report also notes that the HEA has achieved greater focus and clarity about its strategic role and has increased its subscriber base. Nonetheless, challenges remain for the HEA, not least in trying to manage multiple tensions.

These include being responsive to institutions’ needs while also challenging practices that need improving or changing; delivering support that is valued equally by institutional leaders, disciplinary groups and individuals; balancing the needs and expectations of the four nations of the UK; and increasing and diversifying income streams while building the capacity to deliver new services at home and overseas.

Even more tricky to balance, perhaps, is the inherent tension between providing a service and contributing to and stimulating debate on issues of importance to the success of UK HE. (p.6)

It is both ironic and galling if you are a believer in the importance of quality enhancement in higher education, that just at the time when other countries are raising their game and increasing their focus on the quality of teaching and learning, the UK appears to be pulling out from its national-level commitment.

What the UK has achieved, particularly through the professional recognition of teaching in higher education, has been recognised and applauded outside the UK. In June 2013, Mary McAleese’s report to the European Commission on Improving the quality of teaching and learning in Europe’s higher education institutions included many recommendations that have already been implemented in the UK and championed by the HEA.

McAleese and her high-level team recommend not only that all staff teaching in higher education institutions in 2020 should have received certified pedagogical training, but also that the European Union should support the establishment of a European Academy for Teaching and Learning led by stakeholders.

As significantly, recommendation number one is that public authorities responsible for higher education should ensure the existence of a sustainable, well-funded framework to support higher education institutions’ efforts to improve the quality of teaching and learning (p.25).

In other words, just has proven to be the case in the UK so far, quality enhancement has to be a collective effort at all levels, individual, institutional as well as national.

I suggest we are at a crossroads where the choices made now could lead to negative or positive consequences for the UK and its quality enhancement agenda. These choices are set out below.

The four big choices we face

1. Accreditation of teachers must be a voluntary matter for individuals since this status will increase individuals’ chances of promotion and earning potential (this is a similar argument to that which underpins high student fees). Internationally mobile staff, in particular, will value such qualifications, as will institutions in search of talent. The direction of travel (for the HEA or others) should be towards becoming a professional body. Indeed, this route was identified with the Institute for Learning and Teaching, one of the forerunners of the HEA. Now with more than 50,000 registered Fellows, as reported this week in the Times Higher Education, this could be an option for the HEA.

2. ‘If the sector wants a teaching and learning agency, the sector should pay for it’ (this argument can often be heard from civil servants and funding council officials when discussing the future of national agencies). The choice here is to seek funding support from institutions, typically through subscriptions. In a diverse and autonomous system, across four nations, this inevitably means serving diverse needs, spreading resources thinly and widely, and continuing to dance to many tunes.

3. ‘All institutions should identify the numbers of their staff that are qualified to teach’. This is the line that has been pushed by the current Minister for Universities and Science in England by asking HESA to collect such information from institutions (initially by September 2014 and now postponed to next year on account of data-gathering difficulties). The direction of travel here is towards aligning quality enhancement (or this aspect of it) with assurance and regulatory frameworks, effectively re-balancing a stick-and-carrot approach in favour of the sticks. This direction could go further, of course, and could lead to closer alignment or even integration between quality assurance and enhancement agendas. There is precedent for this too, in the structure of the former Higher Education Quality Council, albeit that was a very different agency to the current QAA.

4. National recognition that the quality enhancement agenda is as important to the UK as its framework for quality assurance, which is widely respected by countries, and Ministries around the world. Investing in the quality of teaching and learning and marketing such investment is a key part of the competitiveness agenda for the UK and of considerable importance for the UK’s international aspirations. The UK can point to its twin arms of enhancement and assurance (both supported by a combination of some public and some ‘private’ funding) to demonstrate that the four nations are committed to and investing in quality at all levels to maintain the UK’s reputation for delivering high quality higher education.

Some of these choices are not mutually exclusive. However, the fourth one may be critical to the success of some of the others. It is important to realise that other countries see government (or funding council) support as a sign of national commitment, giving strong credibility to an agenda – in this case quality enhancement – and this is an important calling card when seeking new business overseas.

Real national commitment to quality enhancement is as important for UK HEIs and their success internationally as it is for agencies such as the HEA. It is time to recognise and back what the UK has achieved through its collective efforts and to continue to invest in quality enhancement at individual, institutional and national levels as part of maintaining the UK’s competitive advantage and its claims to be a high quality higher education system.

One response to “Quality enhancement at a crossroads

  1. Thank you Robin for a really insightful piece.

    On a slight tangent to this piece: I don’t think it should go unnoticed in higher education this week that the Institute for Learning – HEA’s counterpart in the FE sector – is now closing up shop. IFL did not survive the transition of the big cut in government funding and transfer to higher membership/subscription. This is the new world order that both HE and FE sectors face and the transition has to be handled with care.

    Of course the FE sector is far more used to agencies and bodies closing, transferring and generally moving around thanks to successive governments being far more interfering in the ‘machinery’ at a high level in FE and its related government departments and agencies – to meet shifting spending and policy priorities.

    Priorities relating to HE do not change as fast and most of the government-driven flashy spending on HE has not gone into whole new agencies and organisations as much as it has to programmes (eg CETLs) which have more organic life cycles, and can be better absorbed in to the sector once the funding dries up.

    This makes HEA quite unusual as a fully fledged new agency set up for HE when the money was flowing. And with 10 years of good works under its belt, few would want to lose it. Indeed we must capitalise on the best of that work and refresh the case for HEA’s mission – and bring the sector along in the process – because a backlash such as the one IFL faced when it was forced to raise its subs, could be fatal – as we have learned from our colleagues in FE.

    I really hope the Academy is bold as it transfers to the new world order of limited central funding, and above all I hope it brings the sector along with it in the process, because in lieu of big pots of cash, institutional and individual support (both at leadership and grassroots level) is now simultaneously the organisation’s biggest asset and greatest liability.

    (Source on IFL:

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