This article is more than 1 year old

What does it mean to lose a designated quality body?

England may soon be without an independent body for quality and standards. Liz Halford and Michael Wells draw the parallel to Australia
This article is more than 1 year old

Liz Halford is a Director of Wells Advisory UK

Michael Wells is Founder and Managing Director of Wells Advisory

In July, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) announced that it will demit its role as the Designated Quality Body (DQB) for England with effect from 1 April 2023.

Subsequently, the Office for Students (OfS) has announced that it will undertake the assessment activities that are currently delivered by the DQB.

Whose house?

This decision by the OfS to take the quality role in house, represents a significant shift in the approach to quality assurance – and one which continues a particular trajectory of the regulator in England and differentiates further from the approach taken by the regulatory bodies in the rest of the UK. The Higher Education and Research Act (HERA) 2017 specified the the role of a DQB is to:

  • assess the quality of, and the standards applied to, higher education
  • provide advice to the OfS on the granting, variation or revocation of degree awarding powers

It was further stipulated that this body should be independent of any particular higher education provider and should not be a servant or agent of the Crown, or a body to which the Secretary of State appoints members.

It is not specified that the DQB should be independent of the regulator.

Is it all an act?

HERA was an attempt to encourage more diversity and innovation in the range of provision, by creating a “level playing field” in terms of funding and regulation for higher education providers, through a system of registration. However, significantly fewer numbers of providers are now registered (409) than were initially expected – and there are many unregistered providers that do not enjoy regulatory oversight.

It is possible that the OfS (prompted by ministerial views) may be looking to shrink the sector in terms of the number of providers and the number of students, and that quality assurance measures based on performative metrics, could be harnessed for such a purpose. So the future role of a DQB is significant.

When the OfS assumes DQB responsibilities, it will undertake the following assessment activities currently delivered by QAA. This reinforces the recent direction of travel in relation to the involvement of OfS in quality matters by:

  • Assuming ownership of investigations into concerns about grade inflation at three unnamed providers.
  • Introducing a new system of metric-based monitoring will include the imposition of sanctions, if the tests for quality courses are not met by institutions.
  • Undertaking a quality role is its implementation of the revised Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). Registered providers will be required to make a TEF submission in January 2023.

Independence and international esteem

The perceived lack of independent scrutiny of providers could raise potential problems for the reputation of academic standards and the quality of the student experience in English higher education, especially as an independent quality body (QAA) will continue to operate in the other UK nations. This is already of significant interest to international students and the relevant authorities in overseas jurisdictions where English universities operate campuses and partnerships.

The shift in the approach to regulation and quality assurance can be regarded as a move from institutional autonomy, based upon a particular context and mission, to an imposition of regulatory standards using tools, such as performance metrics, with applied sanctions for failure to meet required standards. This approach does not explicitly include any review or enhancement activity.

However, it may, as in the Australian experience, create a demand for an external and independent review process.

Looking to the antipodes

In the last decade, Australia has transitioned from a system of quality enhancement to one of regulation. The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) is the regulator and designated agency for registering higher education institutions to enrol international students on a visa. In effect, TEQSA registers providers, lists courses, and sets number controls for international students under separate legislation (Education Services for Overseas Students Act).

TEQSA has now established bipartisan support across the political spectrum and evolved its operating approach to be firmly embedded as an assurance approach, accepted nationally and internationally. Importantly, TEQSA has a constitutional basis for its authority. Its legislation over-rides university enabling Acts and its powers go well beyond conditions which may be attached to grant funding.

This experience provides some insights for any system of higher education regulation:

  • the role of a regulator was established under legislation to make regulatory decisions, according to the law, thereby establishing a legal threshold
  • decisions had to be defensible, evidence-based and procedurally fair
  • most of TEQSA’s regulatory decisions are reviewable in the Commonwealth Administrative Appeals Tribunal; thus, providers have significant appeal rights
  • this has forced TEQSA to use external expertise, in arriving at its decisions
  • its commissioners are drawn from senior higher education sector ranks.

In addition, the threshold standards require cyclic independent review of corporate governance and of academic governance. In areas of critical issue between the regulator and a provider, each side may engage experts to assist them. Indeed, in anticipation of concerns by TEQSA, an institution may often engage assistance to provide it with critical review. Such review may be embedded within its own internal audit processes and reported to the Audit & Risk Committee. Managing high-stakes regulatory risk is a natural consequence of the regulatory approach.

Differences too

This approach has often seen a strengthening relationship between a provider’s academic board (dealing with academic risk) and the audit and risk committee (advising council/governors on corporate risk).

While TEQSA employs a metrics-based approach for reviewing and rating each provider’s risk profile (annually), it is not designed to substitute for regulatory analysis. This is because under appeal, regulatory decisions made purely upon metrics would be highly unlikely to be sustained in such a nuanced area as higher education. A key yardstick is whether threshold compliance has been met.

A difference in the Australian approach is that sector experts do not determine the outcome. They inform it. This is regulation, not quality assurance. Yet should the regulator’s decision come to be challenged, evidence of sector benchmarks, of quality assurance processes, and ultimately proper governance, will usually stand the provider in a strong position vis-à-vis the regulatory decision.

What might this mean for the English system?

When the DQB role is taken in-house at OfS, it is likely that (as in Australia) there will be significant need for sector expertise to help assist the regulator, and to support institutions in meeting the regulator’s expectations. This will reach far into governance and management, especially when regulation includes a licence to operate and attract funding.

A full report from Wells Advisory is available here.

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