The UK’s new Quality Code in practice

It’s been five months since the publication of the expectations and practices of the UK Quality Code for Higher Education. The code is succinct and high level, giving room for innovative practice to flourish and different provider types to demonstrate how they meet those expectations.

The code is fundamental to regulation, quality assessment, and quality enhancement in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Together, it presents a coherent picture internationally, so that students know that a UK degree is consistent wherever it is delivered.

Generally, the new Quality Code has been praised for its brevity. However, to be meaningful it needs to provide information that offers sufficient practical support. More detailed advice and guidance is being developed through sector consultation, with a view to offering a collective idea of what effective practice looks like.

This won’t simply be the old Quality Code repackaged. The previous version was obsolete in places and not sufficiently reflective of the current landscape. It was overly repetitive and unnecessarily wordy in places. A key driver for the reforms is to focus on what is really needed to support the sector.

Applying the Quality Code

It is a designed consequence of devolution to enable rich diversity across the four jurisdictions. It’s therefore no surprise that quality assurance is evolving to meet the needs and national priorities of each UK nation.

The UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment (UKSCQA) has managed to achieve a consensus around a coherent framework for HE quality and standards by recognising those differing priorities. It has sparked discussions about what it means to have a UK Quality Code. Before, the 19 expectations of the Quality Code applied equally across the country. Now, for the first time, external quality checks in each UK nation will apply elements of the revised Quality Code in different ways.

England

  • Resources for external assurance will be targeted at those at risk of not meeting baseline expectations

  • Expectations and core practices of the Quality Code are aligned with Office for Students (OfS) conditions relating to quality and standards, and therefore providers must meet them

  • OfS will employ a range of monitoring and assessment methods, including random sampling and review by QAA, to confirm registration conditions are being met.

  • Common practices are not a regulatory requirement, but many providers will engage fully with them

  • Advice and guidance will supplement the Quality Code and support best practice in the sector

Northern Ireland

  • Retains the operating framework introduced in 2016 for now, and will continue to use the full Quality Code.

  • Advice and guidance will supplement the Quality Code and support best practice in the sector

Scotland

  • An approach to external quality assessment that emphasises enhancement

  • Enhancement-led reviews supported by cross sector Enhancement Themes

  • Providers required to meet expectations and core and common practices of the Quality Code
    Advice and guidance will supplement the Quality Code and support best practice in the sector


Wales

  • An approach to external quality assessment that emphasises enhancement

  • Providers required to meet expectations and core and common practices of the Quality Code

  • Advice and guidance will supplement the Quality Code and support best practice in the sector

  • Explicit quality assessment requirement for providers to demonstrate how they meet the European Standards and Guidance, with which the Quality Code is aligned


The advice and guidance can provide some pointers, but will not be prescriptive. The common practices will help institutions enhance the experiences of students in a way that suits their own mission and context. The challenge is: how can the supporting advice and guidance be both coherent and support different provider types and different jurisdictions to develop in different ways and to their own contexts?

Revisions

Once the revised Quality Code was launched in late March, we got to work on the advice and guidance. We hosted two scoping events to review the proposed themes, which have been tweaked in line with the feedback. The most significant changes include: adding recruitment and widening access to the admissions theme to align with the core practice; better reflecting the use of external expertise; and adding a theme on programme design and development, which is the critical first stage of quality assurance.

We’ve also strengthened the theme on support for students, including how they engage with quality assurance. The consultation response sent a clear message that student engagement must be more fully represented. The advice and guidance will better reflect it too.

Seven advice and guidance workshops followed in May. These events were full to capacity, representing the range of provider types, along with a healthy number of student voices.

At the workshops, we asked people to help us write and review the guidance based on the workshops’ recommendations. We recruited 133 writers, representing 91 providers and organisations. Our 180 readers, representing 116 providers and organisations, gave us their insight and valuable suggestions for improvement. The writers have joined us at QAA’s Gloucester HQ this week for intense days of further edits and refinement based on those suggestions. These volunteers are working hard around their day jobs and holiday commitments to meet stringent deadlines.

Later this autumn, we will present the outcomes of this work to the UKSCQA with the intention to launch and publish the advice and guidance in late November 2018. That’s a tight deadline and goes some way toward explaining our expeditious approach. We have had excellent practical support from the sector. We will need to continue to call on this support to finish this review process, embed the new Quality Code in each nation, and provide ongoing support and maintenance into the future.

Open-minded

Policy changes will continue to test our UK-wide approach. For example, there’s a trend toward considering post-secondary education as part of a continuum, rather than making the distinction between further, higher, and skills education. Governments are exploring this approach: Wales’s post-compulsory education and training reforms, Scotland’s 15-24 learner journey review, and the as-yet unknown outcomes of England’s post-18 funding review. What happens if different nations make inconsistent judgements on how HE fits into a new tertiary sector? We should be open minded about how the Quality Code meets the needs of each of the nation and remain relevant in this context.

No matter what differences we have within the UK, the global perspective sees a single world-class HE sector. International students apply for a UK degree, and apply for UK visas to live and study here. That reputation is deep-rooted. Despite different approaches to assessing quality and standards in each UK jurisdiction, the full Quality Code should remain the central touchpoint that underpins practice across the UK. It’s an expression of what it means to achieve a UK degree, or indeed any other UK higher education qualification. Whatever reforms are introduced, that’s still going to be important.

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