An interesting post on WonkHE yesterday about the future of Quality Assessment.

There are clearly some interesting proposals brewing, and it is quite refreshing to know that sector bodies are willing to be creative and go back to core principles. The most important principle when it comes to the regulation of UK Higher Education, in my opinion, is that of institutional autonomy. The reason UK and U.S. Universities top every global league table going is because our universities, unlike the vast majority of other sectors, have had the freedom to develop and grow free from direct government intervention.

HEFCE is a government body, it’s is established by statute and reports directly to BIS. I was a little concerned therefore when it unilaterally announced, some months ago, that it was going to review ‘Quality Assessment’ in England. I posted about it on my blog.

The statute in the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act under which HEFCE gains authority for quality assessment is as follows:

(a)secure that provision is made for assessing the quality of education provided in institutions for whose activities they provide, or are considering providing, financial support F1. . .,

It is a little ambiguous, I think, but as I wrote back in October, it limits HEFCE to making sure that quality is assessed, it does not imply that HEFCE should be the assessor! A subtle but essential difference. The ambiguity does place a heavy responsibility on HEFCE and a big risk on the sector though; arguably HEFCE could extend it’s reach and interpret this statute in away that allows it to regulate and intervene directly in the management of quality in Universities.

I sincerely hope it doesn’t do that.

Some of the proposals that have been floated could see HEFCE, perhaps unintentionally, cross that line. Annual reviews of data will undermine existing internal processes and give HEFCE the levers to intervene in institutional prioritisation and management decisions. I’m not sure how dismantling external review by QAA and replacing it with a (presumably) ‘non-peer’ review as part of HEFCE’s five-yearly review of governance is going to lighten (or for that matter enlighten!) the system.

One final concern is the unity of the UK system. The existing QA system, just about, holds the UK together with English, Welsh, Scottish and Northern Ireland universities buying in to a broadly common system. Scotland walked away from the review at the outset, I’m not sure whether Wales and Northern Ireland have stayed the course. It would be bad news indeed if the brand of UK Higher Education were to be undermined.

Lots of detail and matters of significant principle to get stuck into.

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