Henry Ford had strong opinions.
The man who brought us the motor car in “any colour you like, as long as it’s black”, also reputedly said “quality means doing it right when no one is looking”.
In light of the continued divergence of approach to the regulation of the quality of teaching, learning and assessment across the UK higher education sector that was heralded by the launch of the OfS’ regulatory framework in 2018, many English providers have been considering a variant of that old, philosophical head-scratcher about trees and forests. If the regulator is interested primarily in the baseline of quality, then how do you push yourself forward so that your outcomes, and the processes that produce them, remain innovative and dynamic above the baseline? Or, put another way, was Henry Ford as blinkered about quality as he was about paintwork?
Reinventing the wheel
The UK Quality Code contains the expectations that bind UK higher education together. Across all the nations of the union, and all the various review and assessment systems that have come and gone since the early nineties, whether the focus has been on process or outcomes, enhancement or audit, the Quality Code has framed providers’ approach to securing academic standards and delivering a quality academic experience for students. It sits alongside the Subject Benchmark Statements and Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications to form a scaffold against which providers have shaped, honed and delivered their particular approaches.
The OfS’ proposal to divorce regulation from the Quality Code does, then, at first glance seem like a seismic shift in the landscape. But OfS is not saying that academic quality doesn’t matter – of course it isn’t! – what it is saying instead is that it’s a matter for institutions to decide how to design their quality systems. The question for providers in England is the extent to which they wish to reinvent the wheel. This takes on a particularly sharp focus when we consider how UK higher education is viewed from an international perspective.
The Quality Code was co-designed and co-written by providers and students across all four nations. It is the product of decades of reflection and has been the underpinning reference point for providers designing and refining the arrangements they put in place to help their students achieve the academic standard of the award they’re working towards. It covers a wide range of options for providers to drive their enhancement agenda forward, including how, and how effectively, a provider manages teaching, learning and assessment to support student progression. It is transparent, co-owned, and perhaps most important, easily understood. It’s understood by the sector, by students and by stakeholders both domestically and internationally. English providers above the baseline are unlikely to attract the attention of OfS’ risk-based monitoring and will continue to be able to take full advantage of the wealth of the Code.
The clarity of the common code
Aristotle, too, had thoughts on quality. He proclaimed that “quality is not an act, it is a habit”. The habit of academic quality is well ingrained in UK HE. Institutional autonomy means that everyone practices that habit somewhat differently, but the tradition of practice and of external peer-led assessment of that practice, makes the habit unlikely to break. Mature habits don’t need regulatory force to keep them going, as the enhancement-based systems in Scotland and Wales recognise; and autonomous providers recognise the benefits of collaboration and co-creation.
This is a defining moment for quality and for the UK-wide nature of the higher education system we all engage in. I believe the challenge is not so much to continue doing the right thing when nobody is looking, but to figure out how to lend transparency to the excellent practices across the sector so that we continue to grow, to highlight good practice and to learn from each other. For me, the most effective way to do this is through the richness of opportunity and intelligence that a collective, shared commitment brings. If the sector across the nations continues to adopt and adapt the Quality Code; if we can together make it work for us; then the changes heralded by OfS’ consultation will, as intended, leave the sector stronger.