One of the more surprising announcements in recent months from the former Minister for Higher Education and, briefly, Secretary of State for Education, was the announcement of a wave of inspections of universities to be conducted by the Office for Students.
The initial driver for this appeared to be a concern that, post-pandemic, many universities were not returning to full in-person teaching for students and that this represented poor value for money. But there is clearly more to it than this as reported in the Daily Mail. You would be forgiven for thinking from the description of ‘hit squads’ who will be swooping into universities and ‘coming down hard’ on any online activity that this is the equivalent of a major drugs bust or tackling some other highly illegal operation rather than a few very particular concerns that academic staff were not willing to offer face to face teaching:
The Government has started recruiting hit squads to check universities are doing enough face-to-face teaching – with the aim of having teams ready to swoop by the start of the next academic year.
The inspectors will conduct spot checks to ensure in-person teaching has returned to pre-pandemic levels, with the threat of financial penalties for institutions that fail the test.
A brand new box of matches
But this was followed just a few weeks later by the even more surprising news that the Quality Assurance Agency had decided that it no longer consented to being the Designated Quality Body in England.
The Designated Quality Body or DQB is the organisation appointed by the OfS (following a formal application and consultation process) to assess the quality and standards of institutions’ courses. The assessment function – as set out in the agreement between the OfS and the QAA in 2019 – is central to enabling the OfS to discharge its duties under HERA (the Higher Education and Research Act 2017) in relation to whether institutions meet the initial and ongoing conditions of registration.
When the QAA was originally designated it was in reality the only body capable of fulfilling the role and enjoyed overwhelming support from the sector. As noted in the agreement between the two organisations mentioned above:
The OfS welcomes the QAA’s designation as it ensures that the QAA’s expertise as the sector-recognised expert body on quality and standards can be deployed in the new regulatory environment. The QAA will perform the Assessment Functions in relation to individual providers independently of the OfS.
Why did the QAA decide to relinquish the DQB role then? Fundamentally, having worked exceptionally hard over the past quarter of a century to establish itself as a highly reputable and respected quality agency with international profile and having developed a model and approach which has been emulated by nations across the globe, it seems that the QAA determined that retaining that standing was ultimately more valuable to it than the DQB contract. The QAA had wanted the OfS to enable it to operate in a way which met the European Standards and Guidelines but unfortunately this does not seem to have been acceptable.
This does leaves us in a rather strange position where the only body which appears to be capable of acting as the DQB has decided it no longer wishes to do so. The OfS response to the decision by the QAA noted that they were “discussing with Universities UK, and others, whether there is another body that could be designated when the QAA’s role comes to an end.”
You keep playin’
However, that seems not to have as yet resulted in a clear way forward as the OfS has now indicated that it is pressing ahead with at least some QAA activities from April 2023 “on an interim basis.”
These include quality and standards reviews for institutions seeking registration with the OfS and assessments for degree awarding powers. At the same time though the OfS is continuing “to discuss longer-term arrangements with sector representative groups.
For the sector in England this does really feel like a major shift. The OfS, whether it is able to appoint another DQB or has to do it itself as now seems to be likely at least in the interim, will find this all to be less than straightforward. We need to bear in mind that it took the QAA well over a decade after its establishment to move from an agency viewed with considerable hostility by the sector to a respected partner in the regulatory landscape. The OfS, which is still a relatively new organisation, and which has a series of additional government expectations to address (eg free speech, classifications, addressing lower quality courses, ‘levelling up’) is inevitably going to look like it is adding to the volume of regulation on the sector. Add all this to the work required to deliver the activities of a departing DQB and it’s looking like a major challenge for the OfS to get everything in place in 2023.
You keep saying you’ve got something for me
Meanwhile, back in the world of getting boots on the ground the original OfS advert for assessors closed on 24 June 2022 but was followed by a further letter to heads of university business schools on 5 July aiming to recruit reviewers with a focus on business studies. The letter specified that the “focus is on these matters of core academic interest and not on bureaucratic quality assurance processes and arrangements.”
The latest announcement indicates that the recruitment exercise is still underway.
It remains unclear why the OfS decided to do this all by itself rather than ask the DQB to provide this service. It’s possible that the OfS was concerned that all the bureaucratic QA knowledge might get in the way of clear judgements about teaching and assessment. Or maybe they were worried that any QAA-recruited assessors would be a bit too soft and forgiving of those inspected. More likely though is that they were anticipating that the QAA was on the point of declining to continue as DQB.
It’s important in this context to recall that for the first years of its existence the QAA was conducting inspections under the HEFCE-originated TQA/Subject Review regime (greatly disliked by the sector and which also involved boots, or other footwear, on the ground) and earned a reputation for rigorous intervention which it has largely managed to sustain. Indeed it is the deep-rooted expertise, gained over 25 years of quality assurance activity which has delivered the standing the Agency enjoys in this country and around the world. This reputation is not founded on a bureaucratic approach to quality assurance or its administrative activities but on rigour and robustness in matters of academic standards and quality.
Since then though we have had another announcement from the OfS in similar vein. There are to be investigations into three institutions which are suspected of inflating degree classifications
However, they do note that
the fact that the OfS is conducting these investigations should not be interpreted as indicating that any form of wrongdoing has actually taken place in any of the three providers concerned.
This nevertheless feels like a really serious step.
But help is at hand. As noted here on Wonkhe, recent OfS board papers report that the DfE is allocating £1.7m to help support the establishment of a “dedicated team” to undertake this and other investigations. It does rather sound like a ramping up of inspection activity on the part of the OfS.
As the 14 October statement confirms, with a quote from Jean Arnold, Director of Quality at the OfS:
The OfS will continue to undertake quality assessments as part of its programme of investigations on quality issues and we will expand our pool of academic experts as our assessment activity increases next year.
One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you
For the recently appointed Secretary of State and the new Minister whose role covers Higher Education, there are some big challenges ahead. In order to retain the confidence of institutions in England there will be a need to address the requirement for a credible DQB as soon as possible as well as seeking to reduce the ever-growing burden of additional regulatory activities. Whilst it remains to be seen whether the “boots on the ground” initiative will survive – whether the boots will turn out to have legs as it were – there are real questions outstanding about why the Office for Students has chosen to follow such a path on this issue.
And the impact of the views of the new ministerial team on the stance of England’s regulatory regime will be interesting to see as it tries to make sense of this rather confusing, and increasingly costly and burdensome, situation.
Assuming the current government travails permit it, some bold action is going to be required of the new team at the DfE given the crisis in confidence the departure of the QAA as DQB is going to generate and all of the additional regulatory activities universities are already subject to, as well as the extra interventions coming down the track, including:
- new free speech legislation;
- the approach to dealing with ‘low quality courses’;
- potential regulation on harassment and sexual misconduct;
- a proposed equality of opportunity risk register;
- new expectations on student outcomes;
on top of the “new boots” operation.
Standing in boots
The international reputation our sector enjoys for the quality of our provision cannot be taken for granted. Whilst originally based on the professionalism of our staff and the approach taken to maintaining standards and assuring quality of provision within each institution, it is also founded, at least in part, on the rigour of the quality assurance regime we have in place which is in large part down to the work of the QAA over the last 25 years. We do not want to lose that international standing – it risks damaging both student recruitment and our global partnerships.
The English sector will be concerned that a way forward be found as soon as possible. The new Secretary of State, if they wanted a relatively quick win, could discard all this unhelpful talk of boots on the ground and instead consider instigating a review of quality assurance arrangements in England with a view to developing a rational sustainable model.
This happened in the mid-90s in the UK when the Joint Planning Group was charged with developing a new model for quality assurance, ultimately leading to the creation of the QAA and, in due course, a period of some stability in arrangements which benefited everyone. Nearly five years on from HERA a similar approach should be followed now to address the somewhat messy and extremely burdensome quality assurance landscape we have found ourselves in which benefits none of the stakeholders in HE.
The alternative is that we will have two quality agencies – the QAA and its replacement as DQB, if there is one – plus a regulator operating a complex and intervention-heavy quality assurance framework which will cause significant problems for the sector and it will all need reviewing again in a few years’ time. Better therefore to acknowledge now that it needs to be sorted and commission a 2023 version of the Joint Planning Group to map out a new way forward for quality which will work effectively and efficiently for all stakeholders.
This article represents the personal view of the author.