David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

So what happens now?

From 1 April the Office for Students holds the Designated Quality Body responsibilities in England, supposedly on an interim basis.

There are many in the sector – including some very senior figures – who do not feel that academic quality and standards are something that an arms-length government body (with four senior executives directly appointed by the Secretary of State) can do.

The OfS is taking these new responsibilities seriously – it is directly employing academic subject experts to provide legitimacy and knowledge, and has recently restarted “boots on the ground” regulatory inspections where provision is of concern.

But there is an expectation, from Universities UK and others, that “interim” really should mean interim, and a new – independent – DQB should be found as soon as possible to replace the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA). This will not be easy.

This is not a love song

Let’s scoot over to the 2017 Higher Education and Research Act. Section 4 of Schedule 4 sets out what is expected of a DQB:

4. (1) A body is suitable to perform the assessment functions if the body satisfies conditions A to D.

(2)Condition A is that the body is capable of performing the assessment functions in an effective manner.

(3)Condition B is that—

  1. the persons who determine the strategic priorities of the body represent a broad range of registered higher education providers,
  2. the body commands the confidence of registered higher education providers, and(c) the body exercises its functions independent of any particular higher education provider.

(4)Condition C is that the body consents to being designated under this Schedule.

(5)Condition D is that the body is a body corporate and is not—

  1. a servant or agent of the Crown, or
  2. a body to which the Secretary of State appoints members.

It’s quite a high bar. In performing the functions in an “effective manner” (Condition A) it is reasonable to expect that this would be demonstrated by a track record of performing similar functions relating to the assessment of academic quality and standards in higher education.

In commanding the confidence of registered providers (Condition B) you would expect that this is demonstrated via positive consultation responses, and that providers would have some experience of the work of this body on which to base their judgement. Under the same condition, the DQB cannot be attached to any particular provider – but it needs a number of provider representatives (a broad range, no less) on the board (or similar strategic body).

Condition C is a bit more straightforward – the body has to agree to do it, there’s no conscription possible without consent. And Condition D demands such a body is independent from government, both in terms of direct government employment and in terms of the Secretary of State appointing staff.

What the DQB does is set out in section 23 of HERA:

assessment of, the quality of, and the standards applied to, higher education provided by English higher education providers.

And this is done with respect to applications to register (paragraph 2a) and ongoing registration (2b) against the relevant registration conditions (set out as per sections 5-14) – in particular the condition in 13(1)(a):

a condition relating to the quality of, or the standards applied to, the higher education provided by the provider (including requiring the quality to be of a particular level or particular standards to be applied).

This condition is applied with respect to “sector recognised standards” (section 13 (3)) which need to be determined by people representing a broad range of providers, and command the confidence of all registered providers.

This is what you want, this is what you get

There’s fair reason for doubt as to whether the approach to quality and standards we currently enjoy is the system that was intended by parliament – I’ve been over this ground before on Wonkhe. We can now, thanks to the House of Lords Industry and Regulators Committee, add the thoughts of Jo Johnson, the responsible minister at the time:

It has been an unhappy episode with the QAA resigning as the quality assurance agency, effectively thrusting that responsibility back on to the Office for Students .. it is preferable for this function to be undertaken by a body other than the OfS—at a further remove from a non-departmental public body—to continue to ensure that we preserve institutional autonomy. My preference would be a reformed QAA doing it.

By reformed, he means shorn of the membership and general purpose expertise on aspects of academic quality and standards beyond the narrow HERA remit. I have to note in passing that it is these aspects that allowed the organisation to pass conditions A and B for DQB designation. But there is no mistaking his position:

One way or another, something has to give. It would not be my long-term wish for the OfS to do this [DQB role] itself.

Even though:

The QAA is an impressive organisation, but it is a legacy organisation from a different era … The QAA embodies the ethos of co-regulation, where the sector manages quality and standards according to its sense of what works, and government funds the sector and does not ask too many questions.


I’m sure you are all well ahead of me in noting that OfS passes just one of these statutory DQB conditions. There is some wiggle room around A, but we need more evidence to be certain. It demonstrably does not command the confidence of providers (B) given the responses to the de-designation consultation (31 of 47 responses were against de-designating QAA, for fear of what might come next), and as regards condition D the Secretary of State appoints the chair, chief executive, Director for Fair Access, and soon the Director for Free Speech and Academic Freedom. It does consent to designation (C), but I fear this may not be enough.

It’s not relevant of course – OfS gets the DQB functions by default, and keeps them until it chooses to consult on identifying a new DQB (although the Secretary of State can ceremonially give the regulator a nudge if required (Schedule 4, Section 1 (2)). I’ve asked OfS if that nudge has been delivered yet and the answer was “no”.

Certainly, the sector appears to concur with Jo Johnson that we need a new DQB as soon as possible. At the Industry and Regulators Committee Universities UK chief executive Vivienne Stern gave her reasons:

We argued that there should be a DQB. When you look at what the OfS requires of institutions in that quality bucket, it talks about things that require the expert judgement of academics […] In the capacity of the OfS to draw on expert academic judgement in scrutinising quality and standards, we worry that it is losing what we understand to be expert capacity in the QAA and we are not sure how the OfS will replace that in its new function. That does not mean that it cannot do so; it could, but there is a nervousness there.

She also touched on the need for independence as a bulwark against politicians (and, indeed, the regulator) having an influence on the university curriculum and who teaches what and how, and for comparability with systems in the wider UK and overseas.

Where are you?

So, if not QAA, then who?

Clearly neither OfS nor DfE are realistic propositions longer term – neither are any of the DfE arms length bodies (Ofsted, or IfATE, for example) – for the simple reason that they are too close to the government and/or ministers appoint people to them.

There is a collection of public service contractors that occasionally carry out inspection-style work in other areas of government policy – however none of these could reasonably expect to command the confidence of providers, or to have a strategic direction set by a cross-section of providers.

There are overseas agencies similar to QAA – the High Council for Evaluation of Research and Higher Education (HCERES) in France, and the Andalusian Agency of Knowledge, Directorate for Evaluation and Accreditation (AAC-DEVA) in Spain, to give two examples. It is unlikely that agencies like this would consent to be a part of the current OfS quality system, as the lack of compliance with EQAR registration conditions would put other work at risk. Neither would they erect the kind of internal barrier that QAA was required to in order to separate out DQB work (and costs!) from other activities.

The pardon

A part of the answer may be to turn to the shadow regulatory system – the collection of professional, statutory, academic, scholarly and regulatory bodies that accredit courses against agreed standards set by academics, practitioners, and employers. Individually, each of these would fail (as QAA did) Jo Johnson’s latest test of not providing additional services to higher education organisations – but some kind of a joint aggregate body with a sector representative strategic oversight may be a part of the answer.

Of course, the only body with meaningful relationships with all of these agencies is – as we found out during the pandemic – QAA. If you are wondering how students on professionally accredited courses managed to complete these when the ability to do required placements or practical demonstrations was curtailed by Covid restrictions, a good deal of it was careful behind-the-scenes work from QAA, with support from DfE.

There may be other answers – Universities UK and GuildHE could spin up a new body based on OfS regulatory requirements as they did to create QAA from the old sector-led Higher Education Quality Council (plus staff from HEFCE and HEFCW) during 1996, bringing a ceasefire to the first “quality war”. It feels a little wasteful given that we already have a perfectly good QAA, but it could be done.

The issue, however, is a complex one. HERA makes everything very difficult in the way it prescribes so precisely the QAA-shaped organisation that should fill this regulatory hole. But if history has taught us anything it is that wars end in agreements and compromises. Let’s see.

4 responses to “Who wants to be a designated quality body?

  1. In addition to all the barriers described above we should not forget that section 28 of HERA creates additional complexity for any body wishing to take the role on as it’s fees in any year are capped at its costs. While in some respects this is eminently sensible as it avoids profiteering by a body taking on the role it makes an already unattractive role even less so.

    1. And if the OfS is to increase its charges on institutions in alignment with the fact that it will take on such duties (albeit it temporarily) then that increase should be calculated on the same basis: costs alone- with a transparent breakdown which allows a rebate for institutions not investigated during any one year of the fee charged.

  2. So in order to be designated as DQB a body has to command the confidence of registered higher education providers, but the DQB then can’t do any actual activity for registered high education providers that would allow it to command that confidence as the OfS would consider that to be a conflict of interest.

    That means it can only become DQB by not doing the things it needs to do in order to be designated as DQB.

    “That’s some catch, that Catch-22,”

  3. mid period PIL! the whole thing is just one big exercise in fodderstompf still there will be a lot of careering going on now, choose your theme carefully

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