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The Society for Research into Higher Education

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The Thirty Years Quality War

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By Rob Cuthbert

Ten years ago David Watson[1] (2006 p2) said that in England since the 1980s: “the audit society and the accountability culture have collided (apparently) with academic freedom and institutional autonomy”. He called this clash between accountability and autonomy the ‘Quality Wars’ and identified five major casualties: the shrinking of higher education’s sectoral responsibilities; truth – managers mistaking criticism for resistance, staff mistaking resistance for criticism; solidarity – because of the rise of the ‘gangs’ – the Russell Group and others; students, as quality assurance became ever less effective at delivering enhancement; and the reputation of UK HE abroad, as our determination to label things unsatisfactory advertised the few deficiencies of our sector and obscured our strengths.

Ten years on, the hostilities continue and the casualties mount. By Watson’s reckoning we have now reached a Thirty Years War and it threatens to become even more destructive. Even in 2006 the Quality Wars might still have appeared as squabbles about distributing the spoils between the existing powers, but now the barbarians are at the gate. We need to know who is on our side, and how to pick battles that we can win, because there are many sides, and many different ways to lose.

In the phony war of recent years Government contemplated legislation but thought better of it; national agencies sniffed the wind and began their own turf wars. The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) laid the groundwork for a new approach to quality assurance (QA), but as HEFCE’s funding powers ebbed it started to position itself as a super-regulator, and seemed to cut the ground from under QAA by packaging QA and putting it out to tender. And now the real war is about to begin. A Government adviser was photographed entering No 10 with a briefing memo about less-than-excellent teaching, suggesting that an HE Bill will be launched in the narrow window before the European Referendum imposes purdah on new initiatives. The briefing memo said: “BIS are trying to solve real problems of quality and regulation. But it is not clear they have figured out how and there is a risk that the bodies and rules they will establish in legislation will not solve teaching quality”.

On 18 March 2016 HEFCE published its revised operating model for QA in HE in England. Its Quality Assessment Review started in October 2014 and HEFCE consulted the sector before deciding on a revised approach to come into effect in England from 2016-17. This is ‘designed to be proportionate, risk-based and grounded in the mission and context of an individual university or college and the composition of its student body.’ There will be a ‘single gateway for entry’, with baseline requirements, closer scrutiny for recent entrants, and ‘risk-based and context-sensitive review arrangements for established providers, with rapid, tailored intervention when things go wrong’. There will also be ‘strengthened arrangements for securing degree standards and their reasonable comparability across the UK’, which include training for external examiners and a new system for stakeholders to report concerns direct to the relevant regulatory body.

WonkHE’s summary noted that HEFCE was bringing all its regulatory and funding responsibilities – for QA, financial management and risk – under one umbrella. QAA bridled as for-profit operators like Tribal hovered, but HEFCE was itself fighting to survive after the Green Paper’s proposals for an Office for Students. The Funding Council perhaps thought it might curry favour by letting the private sector in on QA, but the evidence suggests that Government is ignoring HEFCE just as much as it ignores the rest of the (existing) sector. The Green Paper says QA is one of the criteria for the Teaching Excellence Framework; HEFCE is thinking of using TEF outcomes as part of QA. Only one can win, unless we go round in circles. How far can HEFCE go before it is subsumed in OfStud? And how far and how fast should the sector go in complying with the HEFCE proposals? Paul Greatrix (Nottingham) bemoaned the state of HE regulation, and its direction of travel, in a commentary on 1 March 2016 on his Registrarism blog (now part of WonkHE). He was particularly critical of the funders getting involved in academic standards: “The model goes significantly beyond the statutory responsibility of the funding council to “secure that provision is made for assessing the quality of education” by, among other things, digging deeply into the heart of the institutional responsibility for academic standards. HEFCE anticipates outsourcing most of this regulation but there remains the question about which body, other than the QAA, is capable of undertaking any of this work.” He doubted whether there would in practice be any reduction in the regulatory burden.

The new HEFCE Director of Regulation and Assurance, Susan Lapworth, reacted to such criticism by arguing in a HEFCE blog on 12 April 2016 that ‘For some the new approach to quality assessment might look like more burden and bureaucracy. In reality it gives institutions greater freedom to work for their students.’ She would say that, wouldn’t she, and no doubt believes it, but it does not diminish our scepticism. The next day Tish Bourke, HEFCE HE Policy Adviser, also blogged for HEFCE:

“… is there a problem with standards and ‘grade inflation’? … between 2010-11 and 2013-14 there was an annual increase of around 1.5% in the proportion of graduates with first and upper second class degrees … most of this increase can be explained by changes in student and course characteristics. But we can’t explain all of the increase in this way. A recent study by the HEA found that approximately half of institutions have made changes in the past five years to the way that they calculate a final degree classification to ensure that their students are not disadvantaged compared to those in similar institutions. … Failure to protect the standard of degrees runs the risk of damaging the reputation of UK HE. This is why the sector, with HEFCE support, will be taking forward work on degree standards … [in] four areas: training for external examiners; approaches to the calibration of standards; a review of classification algorithms; [and] the use of benchmarked data on degree classifications. … We’re inviting the sector to test different approaches to calibration. We’re categorically not seeking to create common marking criteria, or a national assessment approach for all providers. Rather, we want to establish a simple mechanism to bring together examiners from within a subject community … to improve comparability and consistency.”

There is still a battle to be fought for hearts and minds, and we are not impressed when HEFCE intervenes on degree standards, the heart of institutional autonomy. Central administrators trying to standardise and ‘calibrate’ that which should be diverse do so at their peril. External examining is quintessentially subjective: academic standards are those which academics agree to be the standards, through legitimate processes. What matters are robust and rigorous processes; ‘calibration’ (if it means measurement, as it almost inevitably would) is not necessary and probably not achievable. Grade inflation is a systemic risk when competition treats students as customers: it is a predictable outcome of Government policy. The HE Academy research suggests some grade inflation at the margins; that we have not seen more is a tribute only to academics’ concern for standards in the face of institutional pressure for better ‘results’ to improve league table position.

Government has a manifesto commitment to do something about teaching quality. It doesn’t know what it is or how to measure it, but it wants the problem of teaching quality ‘solved’; its Green Paper said a new independent regulator was needed for what might be seen as ‘common standards’ in the HE ‘market’. 300 years ago the Thirty Years War began with a central authority’s attempt to impose uniformity, and ended with permanently increased autonomy for the constituents. Will our central authority try to end the Thirty Years Quality War by imposing uniformity? These are dangerous times for those who believe that the best guarantee of teaching excellence is diversity through academic autonomy for institutions, disciplines, and academics.

[1] Watson, D (2006) Quality Matters, A QAA Briefing Paper Gloucester: Quality Assurance Agency December 2006

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

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