This year marks a quarter of a century since the creation of the Quality Assurance Agency.
In celebrating this milestone, it is timely to reflect both on the Agency’s own development but also on the wider quality landscape in the nations of the UK and internationally.
The UK’s higher education sector enjoys an enviable international reputation for excellence, with UK institutions featuring as prominently as ever in any attempt to identify the world’s leading universities. An economic success story, universities contribute £95bn to the UK economy, support more than 815,000 jobs and bring £4.9bn of investment to towns and cities.
The golden thread that runs through the sector’s long success is a commitment – both collectively and as individual institutions – to maintain standards and enhance quality, a commitment that is independent of, but complements, adherence to regulatory requirements. This most positive expression of institutional autonomy builds upon a values base that incorporates a dedication to advance the individual and social benefits of HE, and to the academic freedom of students and staff. Without such commitments, we would risk the global reputation and huge economic value of UK HE.
From its inception, QAA and the sector understood that the Agency’s independence and impartiality were crucial to its effectiveness. Only an agency that could act without fear or favour would have the credibility to demonstrate the sector’s commitment to quality and standards.
QAA’s remit has evolved considerably, and continues to do so, since its early days and the intentions articulated for it in the Dearing Report. An important part of the Dearing ambitions remain relevant, in that QAA holds the pen, on the sector’s behalf but as an independent expert body, on a suite of reference points with relevance in all four nations of the UK, including the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications, the Quality Code, and the Subject Benchmark Statements.
A success story?
After 25 years, QAA’s expertise in quality and standards is both deep and broad, with a wealth of theoretical knowledge that is informed by its long practical experience of conducting institutional reviews through a variety of methods. While it is trusted by the sector and works closely with it, QAA has never shied away from reaching a negative judgement where that is what the evidence required – the proportion has typically ranged from 5 per cent to 15 per cent of reviews, depending on review type. Irrespective of the precise outcome, review findings all provide constructive challenge to the institution concerned and review outcomes as a whole provide a wealth of intelligence that is valuable to the individual institution but also to the sector as a whole.
Review outcomes containing significant recommendations for improvement can of course be challenging for the institution concerned, and for individuals working there; but despite the frustrations, almost all are enlightened enough to understand that the quality body’s impartiality is not only essential but also, ultimately, in the long-term interest of institutions and students alike. And we should not overlook the value of reporting on good and excellent practice that is worthy of sharing across the sector, of which there are many examples.
The Agency has also succeeded in developing a body of advice and support to help HE organisations respond to current challenges. For example, the Quality Compass publications have recently provided deep-dive explorations into grade inflation, hybrid learning and assessment. QAA does not simply transmit its own expertise: it formulates its advice in concert with the sector, and facilitates collaboration that drives up quality. Many fine examples can be found in the Enhancement Themes in Scotland and the Collaborative Enhancement Projects in England and beyond.
QAA’s expertise and experience are recognised around the world (in 2013 it was the first agency to be judged fully compliant with all European Standards & Guidelines), and its work provides vital assurance overseas of the quality of a UK higher education, wherever it is delivered. QAA is called on not only for international accreditation, but also for system-level projects to support the development of quality assurance and institutional review methodologies.
In Pakistan, for example, QAA has partnered with the British Council and Higher Education Commission on a new programme that will create a quality code, an assurance manual, and a mechanism for academic audit in the country’s universities. The programme ties into the broader Pakistan-UK Education Gateway Programme and is cited in the UK Government’s International Education Strategy as an example of international cooperation.
QAA’s success has not been without challenge. Our decision earlier this year not to continue as the Designated Quality Body in England (DQB) was one we would in many ways have preferred to avoid, but the English regulatory framework’s divergence from international standards brought the matter to a head. We had to consider what was in the best interests of the students and providers of UK higher education, and it was clear that the benefits of QAA’s remaining DQB were heavily outweighed by the benefits of the Agency’s retaining its place on the European Quality Assurance Register. We acted not only to protect the QAA’s own role as the quality and standards body for the whole of the UK, but more importantly, to help preserve the reputation of the UK’s higher education sector.
Regulatory and policy approaches change, and there is far more variation between the four nations of the UK now than there was 25 years ago. QAA must remain responsive and agile as its role varies by nation, and as policy changes the landscape – the move towards closer alignment between HE and FE in some nations of the UK is a current example.
There is strength in this diversity – but there is also risk, not least because international perceptions continue to relate far more to the UK sector as a whole than to any of its constituent parts. International students and overseas institutions seek assurance of the quality of the UK higher education sector as a whole, and the sector reference points of which QAA is custodian, and its membership and enhancement activities, help provide that assurance.
The next 25 years
As a learning organisation, QAA does not take its success for granted, but draws on an honest assessment of its experience to inform its approach as it looks to the future. The growth in its international reach will no doubt continue, to the benefit of UK higher education and most importantly of students – but QAA’s role in the UK will remain core to its purpose. The continued near-universal take-up by universities of QAA membership in England (it is an expectation of respective quality frameworks for most providers in the other UK nations) is not just a vote of confidence in the Agency’s work; it is an embodiment of the sector’s commitment to quality and standards. That commitment by the sector to an independent quality body is as relevant today as it was in 1997, and I believe it will still be so in 2047.
Providers of tertiary education worldwide will face big questions in the years ahead. How do we help students to forge a sense of belonging in hybrid environments? How can we create flexible learning pathways that serve a more diverse student body, while maintaining academic standards and continuing to enhance quality? How do we protect academic integrity in the face of rapidly evolving AI? The past 25 years have taught us that we can create effective and forward-thinking solutions when we champion collaboration, innovation – and above all, independence.