The way forward from lockdown for PSRBs and HE

As the new academic year nears, Simon Bullock discusses QAA’s role in providing guidance on standards and assessments.

Simon Bullock is a Quality and Standards Specialist at QAA

An anniversary is usually a chance to pause, look back, and reflect. I’ll give you a moment to stop cry-laughing: not only are we nearly three months past the anniversary of lockdown but has anyone in the higher education sector really had the chance to reflect? Or are people working as hard, if not harder, than ever?

We think it’s the latter. The phased return to campuses following the 17 May government announcement coincided with (mostly remote) assessments and now marking, grading, and exam boards. Reflection, then, is a job we’ll take on.

Being prepared

One of the many things that the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) has been trying to do over the course of the past 15 months to ease this workload is to act as a link between the sometimes misunderstood and heterogeneous (from the sector’s perspective) world of professional, statutory and regulatory bodies (PSRBs), and the sometimes misunderstood and heterogeneous (from PSRBs’ perspective) world of higher education.

This has meant building on some aspects of our established PSRB forum, which brings together dozens of bodies twice a year to provide updates and share perspectives. Additionally, we’ve worked with the Department for Education in England to convene roundtable meetings between Minister of State for Universities Michelle Donelan, PSRBs, and our members.

These have been vital in giving the UK Government accurate views of the impact of Covid-19 disruptions on routes to qualification as professionals.

We’ve also published a range of guidance and advice for providers – some of you may have used these to support your own work during the most frantic period of disruption in living memory.

The latest publication considers the range of existing guidance, examines what we’ve learned, and looks forward to some of the key issues that may still be concerning PSRBs. The idea is to prepare them for the easing of restrictions and give them a broad flavour of what the sector has been doing in educating their new entrants.

Our reflections

The new advice, “Emerging from lockdown – reflections for PSRBs”, summarises our previous materials on standards, work-based learning and placements, and assessment. Standards can mean different things depending on the audience, so we take some time to distinguish measures of professional competence from threshold academic standards. Although they can, of course, be co-terminus.

The continuing caution around returning to campuses is highlighted, just in case regulators assumed from 17 May that everything was back to normal. We point to our analysis of common features of “no detriment” policies, knowing such policies provoked close attention from PSRBs.

On assessment, we look at the differing approaches to the resumption of onsite activities across the UK and point to some of the emerging work on digital security for exams. We signpost our guidance on securing academic standards when moving to online provision and assessments as well as guidance for practice and lab-based assessment, which set out some alternative approaches to assessment.

Staying flexible

And what’s next, longer term? We’re asking PSRBs to keep lines of communication open with the sector, and retain the considerable flexibility they’ve shown with the sector to keep the quality of the student experience as high as possible.

We recommend that PSRBs should have a plan to cope with any future disruptions that a third wave might cause in terms of placements, typically a cornerstone of professional qualification and yet so tricky to navigate in lockdown. Cautious perhaps but we underestimate the continuing effects of the pandemic at our peril.

The PSRB piece comes at the same time as new advice for QAA members on digital security in assessment – our latest contribution to the often vexed topic of “online proctoring”, in which we set out guiding principles that providers can follow to ensure any approaches they’re thinking of adopting aid, rather than harm, students.

Our next Quality Compass will look at hybrid teaching and learning, and how we can use the campus space effectively.

Another development we’re keeping an eye on is the Professional Qualifications Bill. This is intended to give PSRBs the framework to decide additional learning requirements for professionals seeking to live and work in the UK from all over the world, replacing the EU Establishment Directive.

Potentially, this could mean professionals being required to undertake short courses to top-up any gaps in competence or knowledge – which is itself a gap for a developing micro-credential market to exploit. Our interest in micro-credentials is identified in our recent Quality Compass and our forward work includes developing a characteristics statement for these qualifications.

We produced the Covid-19 guidance and associated materials with and for our members but agreed to make them public for the benefit of the wider sector in recognition of the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic. Additional resources, including toolkits and detailed case studies as well as networking opportunities and events, are available for all staff and students linked to QAA member providers and can be accessed from our Membership Resources site.

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