Peace in our time? The other future of quality assessment

Fears that the quality assessment system would be handed over to Big Corporates were put to rest on Friday as HEFCE announced that the preferred bidder for four out of six of its contracts would be…drumroll please…the QAA. While Friday’s settlement looks on the face of it like a lot of spilled ink to achieve something very close to the status quo, in reality the quality assessment review has resulted in a reduced-scope QAA operating on a much shorter leash for less money, whether or not this was its intention. In other words, a victory for statutory powers.

Which is why today’s expected announcement in the White Paper that the Secretary of State is to be empowered to designate the “quality body” is a big deal. When HEFCE insisted on pushing forward its review of quality assessment even as BIS announced the imminent development of the TEF, it turned itself into the problem, rather than sticking to its its traditional role as the purveyor of solutions. The sector found, somewhat belatedly, that it valued the independence of the QAA and was less than enthusiastic about the prospect of TEF and QA systems running in parallel. BIS’s intervention will be read as a vote of confidence in the QAA and a snub to HEFCE. That noise you hear is the sound of champagne corks popping at QAA in Gloucester, and the first of many stiff drinks being poured at HEFCE’s Stoke Gifford HQ.

But none of it – the creation of the Office for Students, the designation of the quality body – will happen until 2018. Until 2018 the statutory duty for quality assessment will remain with HEFCE as it goes through a complex and possibly painful transition, discharged by annual scrutiny of what was in the past one QAA contract and is now the various quality contracts, by the Strategic Advisory Committee with responsibility for regulation. There will need to be a decision about the handling of quality assessment in the interim, one that depends on the close cooperation of former combatants. The worst case scenario is surely a settlement that implements the current QA proposals on a two-year time horizon with yet another change in 2018, especially given that the workings of the TEF rely on an institutional inspection broadly comparable to the HE Review.

The HEFCE quality proposals include convening a sector-wide standing committee with responsibility for governance of the baseline regulatory requirements. This gatekeeper committee may need to be re-envisaged as an interim body for oversight of the emergent quality regime and at some point responsibility for its operations handed to QAA, reporting into the relevant SAC within HEFCE. This would create a responsible body in which the sector could have confidence during the period of transition.

The committee will need to issue guidance at an early stage as to whether the quality regime for established providers is likely to continue in the general direction of annual data review, student statement and undertakings by Governors as proposed by HEFCE, or whether a wholly new direction of travel is anticipated. Yet another teaching quality consultation might be more than the sector can take, but if the direction of travel is not close to that set out by HEFCE it may be necessary.

In either case,an immediate shift to a new regime should be put on hold as being unhelpful in the context of a TEF 2 rollout in 2017/18 and the need to sense-check HEFCE proposals for “deliverability” via an independent quality body. The proposed one-off review of institutional processes should be abandoned entirely, as it was always an odd proposition for established providers who had been competently managing their own quality processes for some time. Instead, and for those institutions scheduled for review in 2016/17, the possibility of a hybrid model should be examined. This would be based on the HE Review but could also bring in appropriate data and intelligence to inform an emergent system designed to dovetail with the TEF. It could be argued that providers whose reviews are scheduled for 2016/17 will have the rug pulled out from under them but it is rather unlikely that any of those providers will have departed radically from the processes designed under the HE Review regime in any case. A TEF-qualifying accommodation could safely be made in these instances.

All this assumes, of course, that current and future Secretaries of State will cheerfully designate the QAA as the “quality body” as a matter of course. It is here that the sector may want to pause for reflection. While the change in powers creates an immediate – if forced – détente between agencies, thereby solving some immediate problems, it raises important questions about the future independence of the quality body. While the procurement process is tortuous, it was designed for transparency and accountability according to established rules. Secretaries of State are not known for looking favourably on being stymied by rules and regulations. What looks like an armistice to formalise the end of the Second Quality War may turn out to be only the end of the phoney war.

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