University inspections face major overhaul

Jun 25, 2015 by

The way that university watchdogs check on standards is expected to be substantially changed.

The ways in which university watchdogs protect standards in England, Wales and Northern Ireland face a major overhaul in plans expected next week.

It could mean the end of a regular cycle of university inspections.

There are believed to be proposals for a more “risk-based” approach, with higher levels of scrutiny for less established institutions.

There have also been questions about the future of the current watchdog, the Quality Assurance Agency.

The plans for discussion, which will be published next week, will set out major changes in how standards are assessed and monitored in universities.

Teaching standards

The plans aim to create a way of ensuring quality at a time of increasing consumer pressure from students and doubts about standards in some new private providers.

An annual survey published this month by the Higher Education Policy Institute showed that less than half of students believed they had had good or very good value for money from their courses.

The shake-up is expected to propose different levels of supervision for different parts of the higher education sector. Universities are said to be resistant to a “one-size-fits-all” monitoring system.

This could mean that established, mainstream universities would no longer face a cycle of inspections of the kind carried out by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA).

Newer entrants offering higher education courses would face a tougher level of scrutiny.

For established universities, there would be a stronger emphasis on student “outcomes” – such as data on the employment record of graduates and information from the National Student Survey.

There would also be a strengthening of the “external examiner” system, in which experts from other universities are used to check on the quality of degrees being awarded.

If there were particular concerns about an institution, there would be a formal, hands-on inspection.

It is expected that university governing bodies would have a bigger role in being accountable for quality.

And the plans are expected to “embed” the idea of a way of measuring the quality of teaching in universities. The Conservatives’ election manifesto promised a way of comparing university teaching standards as well as research.

The intention is to move towards a regulatory system with a stronger focus on what courses mean for students and employers, rather than monitoring the internal processes of universities

Independent regulator?

A number of leaks – including in the Times Higher Education magazine and the Wonkhe higher education website – have fuelled debate within the higher education sector.

But there are suggestions that there are still some final decisions to be taken.

There are questions about whether there will in effect be a two-tier system – with a more light-touch approach for established universities and more robust scrutiny for those outside this group.

There were concerns earlier this year from the Public Accounts Committee about an “abuse of public money”, when ineligible overseas students had been accessing funding for courses in private colleges.

The Quality Assurance Agency had also raised questions about the quality of higher education courses taught in further education colleges – with inspectors failing about a third of college providers last year.

The future of the agency itself is also uncertain, if it were no longer to carry out regular inspections.

Last October, a public tendering process was announced to run the university inspection system from 2017. But it now seems that it is going to be a different kind of system from the one currently operated by the QAA.

The proposed changes are also likely to raise questions about the independence of a regulatory system that no longer has regular external checks.

Universities might be offered a more light-touch form of accountability, but in an international market will there be a need for evidence of an independent evaluation?

Would relying on an in-house check be a long-term risk for standards and reputations?

The questions about how university standards are monitored come as students are being increasingly voluble about challenging the quality of their courses.

The increase in tuition fees has brought into sharper focus value-for-money questions about teaching standards, contact hours and how degree standards compare between different institutions.

The plans will be presented jointly by the higher education funding councils for England, Wales and Northern Ireland. But even if the plans are adopted in England, it is possible that Wales and Northern Ireland could go in different directions.

Scotland’s universities operate under a different regulatory system.

Source: University inspections face major overhaul – BBC News

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