What matters in quality: reflections from QAA’s outgoing student board members

Hillary Gyebi-Ababio and Eve Alcock reflect on their two years supporting the quality of teaching in the sector on the QAA board

Hillary Gyebi-Ababio is the vice president for higher education at NUS.


Eve Alcock is an analyst at the Clean Air Fund and a former President of the Students' Union at Bath University

When we took up our roles as Board members at the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA), I don’t think we could have predicted the two years that transpired.

It turns out that a global pandemic and a government with a newfound interest in higher education quality makes for a busy term sitting on the board of an organisation that champions, strengthens and oversees higher education quality across the UK. As we reach the end of our terms on the QAA Board, it feels fitting to look back at what we have learned.

Student Voice

One of the highlights of the two years has undoubtedly been co-chairing QAA’s Student Strategic Advisory Committee (SSAC). As the name suggests, it is a sub-committee of the Board comprising students, student officers and occasionally SU Staff members from across the UK who provide strategic input to the work of the Board and the wider organisation. From strategic risk registers, essay mill legislation, academic integrity charters and countless membership resources, we’ve covered a lot of ground in the past two years. But this isn’t just any student committee.

SSAC is a shining example of authentic student engagement in the sector. We made sure that our terms of reference set us up for success; codifying SSAC’s ability to bring recommendations to the Board, receive regular updates directly from the CEO and Chair of the Board, and a meeting cadence that gives the committee sight of important strategic issues at a point early enough to engage meaningfully.

Input from SSAC members has consistently been rich, insightful, and horizon-broadening, and has influenced the way QAA has worked throughout the pandemic and beyond. We will miss co-chairing SSAC, we have no doubt that the calibre of student engagement will persist long after we leave, because it is in the DNA of QAA.

The UK-ness of approach

Against a backdrop of an increasingly fractured United Kingdom, QAA’s UK-wide approach has stood out during our time as Board members. UK Higher Education is internationally renowned and respected, and that is in no small part down to QAA’s commitment to a four-nation approach in its work. The reach of SSAC’s representation spans across undergraduate and postgraduate levels, and nations (even internationally!) and we regularly get to engage with colleagues from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland at our consultative board.

Despite differences in higher education systems, the commitment to promoting quality across the nations is unwavering – supported by numerous cross-sector collaborative fora where QAA is one of many contributing partners.

In Scotland, the Enhancement Themes have supported staff and students to work together in finding solutions to contemporary challenges for almost two decades. The Welsh sector is working together to develop joint approaches to academic integrity through the Welsh Integrity and Assessment Network, while the NI Quality Managers’ Network provides a space for dialogue and sharing of practice between HE in FE practitioners. As political fractures appear, and approaches to quality begin to diverge, QAA’s relationships across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland act as some much needed glue for the UK Higher Education sector.

Quality is strengthened by people

It wouldn’t be a reflective blog about our time as QAA Board members without reflecting on quality in higher education itself. Reading stories in the media, you would be forgiven for thinking that UK higher education was in a quality crisis; that insidious “low-quality” courses are hiding at the corner of every campus and first-class degrees are being handed out at corner shops. The reality is quite different.

Higher education in the UK is exceptional, important and transformational. The fact that our system is the envy of countries across the world isn’t really down to review cycles, or on-site assessments, or endless lists of quality criteria that appear green on a spreadsheet (though naturally they are an important part of the process). The quality of higher education in the UK is down to people. People – across all four nations – work hard day in and day out because they believe that higher education changes lives, and that everyone deserves access to a high-quality education.

It is obvious that QAA understands that you can’t talk about quality without talking about access, about inclusion, about mental health support and financial stability. QAA understands that quality does not exist in a vacuum but is an accumulation of factors within the wider student experience. It is no wonder then, that a quality body that understands how quality intersects with all other facets of life in higher education has strong relationships across the sector and is inherently trusted by its large and diverse membership.

We are so grateful to have had the chance to sit on the Board of an organisation with brilliant, committed people, that has a strong standing in the sector, and an absolute dedication to centring the student voice at the heart of everything it does. QAA, it’s been a blast. From Hillary and Eve, it’s over and out.

Hillary Gyebi-Ababio appeared at the QAA’s 25th anniversary debate, “quality is in the eye of the beholder”, which is available to view here.

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