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Two quality assurance systems to one: remembering the Joint Planning Group – Part 2

The Joint Planning Group played a small but significant part in the history of quality assurance in UK HE. That was 20 years ago and it does seem as if we are now heading back to what the JPG was intended to solve. Part II of II looks at the work and outputs of the JPG.
This article is more than 6 years old

Paul Greatrix is Registrar at The University of Nottingham, author and creator of Registrarism and a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe.

The Joint Planning Group (the JPG) played a small but significant part in the history of quality assurance in UK higher education. It’s 20 years since it undertook its work and it does seem as if we are now heading into a fragmented quality assurance landscape of the kind the JPG was established to address. I thought therefore it would be worth a look back at this group and its recommendations which led to the establishment of the Quality Assurance Agency and the quality framework we know and love today. The story of the JPG is notable for its length, for the efforts invested to deliver such a modest outcome, for the lack of influence by the universities on the final result.

One important dimension of the outcomes of the JPG was the assertion by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (the CVCP, the forerunner to Universities UK) that not only was the final report good news for the sector, but that it was all thanks to the hard work and vision of the universities’ representative body. This was not wholly accurate. The worry must be that we are now heading towards a similar scenario where we will have a fragmented quality landscape, with different bodies involved and a new TEF too which will require something similar to the JPG to put it all back together. On top of that, the universities may still not have a significant influence over the outcome.

All the gory details

The JPG process effectively started on 2 December 1994 (although the JPG itself was not formed for nearly another 12 months) when the Secretary of State for Education, addressing the CVCP, reported that she had invited HEFCE to develop proposals to bring together Quality Audit and Quality Assessment: ‘preferably [my emphasis] a way forward which has been agreed with representative bodies in higher education’. Nearly two years later, commenting on the Joint Planning Group’s draft final report, the (successor) Secretary of State stated that her initial reaction was that the proposals ‘provide a basis for effective and efficient quality assurance arrangements in higher education’.

Preliminary skirmishes

In April 1995 Tim Boswell (then Minister for HE) issued an invitation to CVCP to reconsider its earlier (1994) proposals for quality assurance. He believed that the separate processes of Audit and Assessment would continue unless such proposals were developed further. The very next day, HEFCE published Circular Letter 20/95, a discussion document prepared following discussions with representatives of CVCP and SCOP in the previous December and February.  The circular included a covering letter from Graeme Davies of HEFCE in which he referred to the options put forward in the document for a new single system. It was observed that alternatives, whilst welcome, would need to be tested against the requirements for quality assurance as defined by the Secretary of State, Gillian Shepherd, in her speech to the CVCP on 2 December 2004. Quality assurance:

‘must respect academic autonomy while having an external element. It must respect academic diversity and freedom while at the same time addressing value for money and public accountability. It should encourage the enhancement of quality and the dissemination of good practice. Last but not least, it should be cost-effective and avoid unreasonable burdens on institutions.’

The main part of the HEFCE document set out these requirements which had a strong emphasis on the demand for accountability in various forms (but did acknowledge a need for institutional autonomy). Davies also stressed that HEFCE was ‘not engaged in a formal consultation with the sector’ on these proposals. It was HEFCE’s most significant early play in the JPG game, setting out its parameters for the debate, defining the terms of argument and inviting contributions on the Council’s territory only. It ultimately succeeded in preventing any other approaches being considered and defining the terms of the eventual outcome. Sportingly, Davies, echoing Boswell, offered the CVCP the opportunity to re-present its June 1994 framework, provided that it was developed into a model which fitted the requirements for quality assurance as set out by HEFCE.

On 24 April 1995, Kenneth Edwards responded to Davies on behalf of CVCP offering an amplification of the previous framework as requested.  The emphasis in the proposals was on (rather vaguely articulated) internally generated reviews and the paper sought to minimise the impact of quality assessment and show how self-regulation with some external input could meet all the ‘requirements for quality assurance’ specified by HEFCE and the Government. Edwards subsequently wrote to Vice-Chancellors in May requesting views on this line and in particular: the need to demonstrate accountability; the introduction of a single integrated process; and the focus on ‘internally-generated reviews which are arranged to provide public accountability’. Attached was a draft minute of Council meeting which stressed that the single agency should be ‘predominantly in the hands of institutions’.

On 17 May 1995, the Higher Education Quality Council (HEQC) which had, extraordinarily, remained silent in the six months since the launch of the debate (for the reason, according to Roger Brown, that it was not invited to contribute) circulated a paper containing its views on the issue.  A letter to members of HEQC’s Quality Assurance and Enhancement Network reported that the HEQC Board, at a meeting on 27 April, had decided that ‘it was now incumbent upon them to enter the debate’. The paper set out certain principles and functions of a single body which could meet ‘not only the interests of external stakeholders but also those of the academic community’ (with the emphasis very much on the latter).

It was already too late though. The terms of the debate were entirely governed by circular letter 20/95 and HEQC was bypassed as became evident when CVCP and HEFCE issued a joint press release reporting ‘further progress…on agreeing proposals for the future arrangements for quality assurance’ at a meeting on 23 May.  The release also reported that HEFCE Council on 17 May agreed that proposals in Kenneth Edwards’ letter of 24 April ‘provided a basis for further discussions’.

An Integrated Process of Quality Assurance

In early June 1995, HEFCE submitted a report to the Secretary of State setting out proposals for an integrated ‘Process of Quality Assurance’ (PQA), the essential features of which were:

  • an end to Quality Audit
  • the evolution of organisation – a Joint Planning Group to be established by HEFCE by October 1996
  • assessments would be conducted under the PQA from 1998
  • responsibilities to be transferred to new Quality Assurance Agency by 2000-01.

A CVCP note of 12 June 1995 contained an extract from minutes of one of its Committees which noted a wide range of concerns about the HEFCE proposals, including: how standards issues would be addressed; the control of the system by HEFCE; the absence of proposals for a unified (i.e. UK-wide) agency; and the balance between internal and external processes. The Committee agreed to stand by CVCP’s (extremely vague) May 1995 position. Subsequent discussions at the 30 June 1995 CVCP Council meeting were focussed on three documents from HEQC which comprised a critique of the HEFCE proposals, HEQC’s proposals for a single quality assurance agency (essentially a revised version of the Council’s May 1995 paper) and proposals for the second round of Audit.

The Secretary of State (21 June 1995) wrote asking for CVCP’s views on the HEFCE proposals and the implications for HEQC’s non-Audit activities. Responding, CVCP expressed its concerns about the model and submitted its own proposals. Meanwhile, HEQC had published its own proposals for a single system. Two months later (21 September 1995) the Secretary of State’s reply to Gareth Roberts welcomed the CVCP’s response in ‘building on the proposals offered earlier by the HEFCE’, stated that the ‘proposals form the basis for an agreed solution’, and that a Joint Planning Group should be established as soon as possible. However, this was qualified by the assertion that the funding councils must exercise their statutory responsibilities in respect of quality assessment – ‘I could not contemplate a solution which relied mainly on self-regulation’. In essence the Secretary of State was actually rejecting CVCP’s concerns in favour of the original HEFCE proposals whilst stressing the compatibility of positions which were, in fact, quite different.

The Joint Planning Group

Six weeks later a letter was sent by the Secretary of State (9 November 1995) confirming that he was happy to accept the CVCP and HEFCE proposal that Sir William Kerr Fraser would chair the JPG. The CVCP’s press release on this issue claimed, somewhat surprisingly, that the proposals for the JPG were developed from the CVCP line.

The membership of the JPG included five vice-chancellors and principals together with funding council representatives (all, to a man, men). The terms of reference included the following aim:

3  The aim of the group will be to develop in detail proposals for a new Agency submitted to the Secretary of State for Education and Employment on 20 July, and to produce an agreed implementation plan. The primary function of the new Agency will be to provide a service for assuring the quality of higher education and the standards of programmes and awards for HE institutions in England, Northern Ireland and Wales, and if appropriate, HE institutions in Scotland. The aim is to start the new Agency by January 1997.

4  To achieve this the group will need to:

draw up the specifications for an integrated quality assurance process which will supersede the current audit and assessment processes carried out by HEFCE’s and HEFCW’s QAD and HEQC, address issues concerning educational standards and the enhancement of teaching and learning, and ensure the availability of appropriate public reports;

10 months later, after an interim report and much consultation, the draft final report of the JPG was produced. It essentially recommended the continuation of Assessment and Audit under different names and by a single agency.  Some modifications to Assessment processes were proposed but there was nothing here which deviated in any significant way from the original HEFCE proposals except for the retention of Audit.  The method would apply in England only and the non-Audit activities of HEQC would be included in the single agency’s remit.

Looking at some of the detail of the work of the JPG the dominance of the HEFCE and Government view is striking, as is the relative insignificance of the CVCP input. The progress of the JPG’s work and the attempt to bring together Audit and TQA (on the face of it a fairly straightforward task) demonstrated an often repeated scenario, where in the sector’s response to external quality assurance processes the spectre of something worse is always offered as the justification for accepting the unsatisfactory proposals on the table. ‘Something worse’ is usually represented as an even less desirable quality regime, such as Ofsted for higher education. The CVCP accepted this view almost unquestioningly it seems, despite the fact that it has never come to pass and, indeed, the reality has been since 1991 that the sector has still always ended up with something worse, more burdensome and prescriptive than before. Additionally, it has, because of its somewhat privileged and ambivalent relationship with successive governments, always tended to adopt more conservative stances for fear of less favourable treatment for higher education in the next funding round. This seems to have governed the stance of the CVCP towards the JPG and effectively permitted HEFCE and the Government to determine the outcome.

From TQA and Audit to TQA and Audit

The establishment of Academic Audit in 1990 represented the sector’s attempt to deal with quality and accountability but this was simply not enough for the Government. The failure of the sector to adequately address accountability demands led to Teaching Quality Assessment, which rapidly came to dominate the discourse.  Looking at the JPG final report, it started with Assessment and Audit and ended up with Assessment and Audit. HEFCE, in its June 1995 report to the Secretary of State, proposed an assessment driven system which disposed of Audit. The concessions achieved by the sector throughout this whole process were, at best, modest and comprised: the retention of Audit, the retention of the non-Audit work of HEQC, greater institutional say in the timetable of Assessments and membership of Assessment teams.

The grounds for the JPG debate set by HEFCE in Circular 20/95 laid down the Government’s requirements and described these as the criteria for quality assurance. These fundamental assumptions were never really challenged by the sector and the CVCP throughout the period maintained its demands for self-regulation backed up by external inspection. HEQC published well-argued critiques of the HEFCE proposals and alternatives but, as with the CVCP ideas, it had already missed the boat. Whilst it could be argued that the sector has consistently failed adequately to address the demands for accountability, in attempting to promote self-regulation as the solution it has demonstrated that it had not learned the lessons of the failure to prevent TQA. Consequently we ended up with a botched compromise which retained the major elements of the Assessment and Audit regimes and a new, more remote body to administer them. The claim that HEFCE, the JPG and CVCP had delivered something new and streamlined rang rather hollow.

A ‘new consensus’

The CVCP claims that the JPG recommendations were developed from their own proposals were unconvincing. Possibly the CVCP was flattered by the Secretary of State’s September letter which, despite effectively ignoring the CVCP’s views in favour of HEFCE’s and rejecting self-regulation in favour of a strong emphasis on external assessment, nevertheless stated that the CVCP’s proposals ‘form the basis of an agreed solution’. By late 1996 the CVCP was fully behind the JPG framework and described it as ‘a new consensus’ in its Dearing submission.

Overall the outcome of the JPG process showed the strength and determination of HEFCE and Government and the inadequacies of the sector’s response. The dominance of accountability mechanisms over self-regulation and quality enhancement can be attributed at least in part to the failure of the sector to address demands for any accountability until it was too late. The final compromise and the strong place of HEFCE and other external stakeholders (10 out of 14 places on Board of the new single Quality Agency) was a further manifestation of this failure to address accountability and a significant degree of complacency in the sector; particularly among the established universities but also from the new members of the university club who were just starting to enjoy the post-CNAA climate.

The outcome contrasts markedly with the Dutch experience where universities, rather than seeking (and failing) to prevent any external intervention to meet demands for accountability, engaged in a more positive and constructively critical dialogue with government and emphasised the importance of balancing accountability and improvement, ending up with a stronger self-regulatory emphasis in its quality framework than England.

The CVCP submission to Dearing throws a little more light on its approach to the JPG and, before observing that the JPG report ‘in which the CVCP has played a leading role’ received the unanimous approval of the CVCP and urging the Committee of Inquiry to support it, the following observations are made:

the public needs reassurance that the system is vigilant in its examination practices and qualifications, particularly after phases of expansion. Without proper quality assurance, public confidence will be lost.

Responsibility for continuous quality improvement should lie within the higher education sector itself. The state, for its part, has responsibilities for ensuring that the education it buys on behalf of its citizens is of good quality.[xxi]

Back to the future

Unfortunately, the CVCP’s embrace of the JPG proposals meant that the state’s responsibility for securing value for money is the governing principle of the quality assurance system. Following the establishment of the QAA and the reshaping of its JPG-set agenda after the Dearing recommendations, it would be several further years before the first components of the new regime began to be introduced in 2002. The current framework, with all of its problems, owes its origins though to the development of the JPG model.

But now it’s back to the beginning again. We seem to be heading towards a similar scenario to the early 1990s where we will have a fragmented quality landscape, with different bodies involved and a new TEF too which will require something similar to the JPG to put it all back together.


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