University standards checks overhaul

Jun 29, 2015 by

"Schools are the frontline of this new age, and it is incumbent on all of us to educate our young in how to move from being digital natives to digital citizens, with all the responsibility and accountability that implies." -- Anthony Seldon, Wellington College

The way universities are inspected will put more emphasis on students, in a proposed shake-up of monitoring quality.

A major overhaul is being proposed of the way in which standards are protected in universities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The plans could mean the end of regular cycles of inspections of universities.

These “reviews” could be replaced by a more risk-based system, with a stronger emphasis on the outcomes for students, such as employment after graduation.

The higher education funding councils, launching the plans, say they want “student needs at the centre”.

But Michael Gunn, chairman of the Million+ group of new universities, said there would be concerns if the end result was losing “an independent external quality assurance system”.

Student experience

The proposals are intended to move away from a “process-driven”, tick-box approach to checking standards in universities.

Instead, there would be less emphasis on regular external institutional reviews and more focus on “outcomes” affecting students, such as drop-out rates, feedback from the National Student Survey and graduates’ employment prospects.

The increase in tuition fees has raised questions about value for money for students

It would mean that established universities might not face the type of review carried out by the higher education watchdog, the Quality Assurance Agency.

The risk-based approach would mean that more attention would be focused on newer, less-established providers – or in cases where particular concerns had been raised.

Dame Shirley Pearce, who chaired the steering group, said there needed to be a quality assessment system that “pays greater attention to outcomes rather than process, is risk-based rather than formulaic”.

It will put greater responsibility on governing bodies of universities to ensure the quality of “students’ academic experience” and to show that they respond to problems within their own institutions.

There will also be strengthening of the system of “external examiners”, where academics from other universities check on the standard of degrees being awarded.

The Russell Group of leading universities backed a move towards a more risk-based approach, calling for a system that reduced the regulatory bureaucracy for “high-performing institutions”.

Teaching quality

But the proposals for maintaining quality will also have to incorporate plans expected to be announced by the government for ensuring the quality of teaching.

The Conservatives’ election manifesto promised the creation of a “teaching excellence framework” – which would assess teaching standards in the way that the “research excellence framework” is used to compare the quality of university research.

This would require a way of comparing teaching in universities – and the higher education funding councils’ report notes that the government is anticipating a “cyclical, external, independent, peer review” to make this possible.

“Excellent teaching and learning is a crucial element of a world-leading and internationally competitive higher education system, and a key priority for this government,” said Universities Minister Jo Johnson.

There have been questions about how the Quality Assurance Agency would fit into the proposed overhauled review system and plans for assessing teaching standards.

Chief executive Anthony McClaran said: “The future of UK higher education and its reputation for quality must be based on the key principles of independent, external peer review in partnership with providers and students.”

The plans for a different way of checking on quality comes at a time of increasing consumer pressure from students.

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.

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

There have also been questions about the quality and reliability of some new higher education providers.

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 assessment plans have been presented by the higher education funding councils for England, Wales and Northern Ireland. But even if the plans are adopted in England, Wales and Northern Ireland could go in different directions.

Scotland’s universities operate under a different regulatory system.

Source: University standards checks overhaul – BBC News

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