This article is more than 4 years old

Universities, PSRBs and Covid-19

QAA is working with professional, statutory, and regulatory bodies to ensure that students can qualify and enter the workforce. Douglas Blackstock explains
This article is more than 4 years old

Douglas Blackstock recently retired as the CEO of the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education

The quick mobilisation of pre-registration health workers into work has been crucial to the NHS’s Covid-19 response.

Whether these early career paramedics, nurses, midwives, doctors and more are on the front line, or helping to backfill gaps left by their more experienced colleagues redeployed elsewhere.

And it’s not just the NHS – recently qualified engineers are turning their skills to rapidly producing much needed equipment to help battle the outbreak, for example. None of this will have been the start to working life they’d imagined just a few months ago

PSRBs and quality

Professional, Statutory and Regulatory Bodies, or PSRBs, and their recognition of a range of higher education programmes are critical to the career paths of many students. With the outbreak causing many universities to rethink how they assess and progress their students, a flexible response from PSRBs is going to be crucial in the coming months.

At QAA, we’d heard concerns from our member universities that some accrediting PSRBs were not demonstrating flexibility in adapting to the inevitable changes arising from the crisis. Some PSRBs are mobilising fast to publish new criteria that consider the unusual working arrangements we all find ourselves in. Others may be waiting to see what other bodies do, or what changes in practice universities and colleges implement.

Any delay would be unfortunate at this time when universities and students alike are looking for clear answers about how professional standards can be maintained flexibly and we need a flow of graduates into the workforce. I sympathise. Professional bodies protect a sector’s reputation, protect their members, and, in many cases, protect public health and safety by ensuring professionals are fit to practice.

It’s also worth considering other students and graduates who might feel their careers have stalled. With businesses furloughing staff and temporarily shutting up shop, opportunities to learn on the job might be hard to come by. With many PSRBs requiring professional practice in order to demonstrate that core competencies have been met, chances to demonstrate professional competencies could be harder.

A ray of hope

But we know that universities have no intention of dropping standards, they are assessing by different means. In our conversations with the higher education sector, it’s clear that they are retaining as many procedures as they possibly can while still being fair to students finding themselves in a situation that is no fault of their own. PSRBs meanwhile are looking to allow variety, flexibility and innovation in the way that students are taught and assessed, so long as they still meet the required professional standards.

Certainly, the will to be flexible is there in many of the over 200 PSRBs QAA has contacted on behalf of the sector in the last week. We are convening conversations between professional bodies and universities wherever we can. Our PSRB Forum took place online on 2 April, with speakers from the General Optical Council, the Nursing and Midwifery Council, the Health and Care Professions Council and the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons sharing the actions they’ve already put in place.

For example, the NMC has approved emergency standards for nursing and midwifery education, which includes provision to allow first year students to move to 100% theoretical study and make up clinical practice hours in later academic years. The GOC, meanwhile, is temporarily allowing automatic progression from year one and year two of a degree programme, so long as certain pastoral care and competency criteria are met.

Same high standards

The message at the meeting was clear: flexibility is needed, and through adapted approaches we can continue to assure ourselves that both academic and professional standards will be met. The contributor from the Department for Education emphasised that standards are being maintained through assessment of equivalence.

Indeed, in this time of health crisis, if the professional regulators in health and medical fields, where decisions are matters of life and death, can assure themselves that standards remain robust because of the rigour of new approaches, then I’m sure that PSRBs in all sectors can do the same.

At QAA, we will continue to support institutions and PSRBs. Our imminent release of guidance will include specific advice on both maintaining academic standards and managing work-based and placement learning – particularly pertinent to professional recognition and registration. Crucially, we are now developing this with many contributions and suggestions from universities and PSRBs alike.

The speed with which providers and PSRBs have adapted to keep offering their students a quality learning experience is remarkable. We can all do more to communicate that academic and professional standards remain paramount and reassure the wider public that the changes won’t compromise this. As I argue in my recent QAA blog, we can all do
more to communicate that academic and professional standards remain paramount and reassure the wider public that the changes won’t compromise this.  And perhaps once the dust has settled, we may find that some of the innovations and flexible new approaches we’ve developed are worth keeping. Necessity is, after all, the mother of invention.

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