By Rob Cuthbert
What are the key issues in HE quality and standards, right now? Maintaining quality and standards with the massive transition to remote learning? Dealing with the consequences of the 2020 A-levels shambles? The student experience, now that most learning for most students is remote and off-campus? Student mental health and engagement with their studies and their peers? One or more of these, surely, ought to be our ‘new normal’ concerns.
But not for the government. Minister Michele Donelan assured us that quality and standards were being constantly monitored – by other people – as in her letter of 2 November to vice-chancellors:
“We have been clear throughout this pandemic that higher education providers must at all times maintain the quality of their tuition. If more teaching is moved online, providers must continue to comply with registration conditions relating to quality and standards. This means ensuring that courses provide a high-quality academic experience, students are supported and achieve good outcomes, and standards are protected. We have worked with the Office for Students who are regularly reviewing online tuition. We also expect students to continue to be supported and achieve good outcomes, and I would like to reiterate that standards must be maintained.”
So student health and the student experience are for the institutions to worry about, and get right, with the Office for Students watching. And higher education won’t need a bailout, unlike most other sectors of the market economy, because with standards being maintained there’s no reason for students not to enrol and pay fees exactly as usual. Institutional autonomy is vital, especially when it comes to apportioning the blame.
For government, the new normal was just the same as the old normal. It wasn’t difficult to read the signs. Ever since David Willetts, ministers had been complaining about low quality courses in universities. But with each successive minister the narrative became increasingly threadbare. David, now Lord, Willetts, at least had a superficially coherent argument: greater competition and informed student choice would drive up quality through competition between institutions for students. It was never convincing, but at least it had an answer to why and how quality and standards might be connected with competition in the HE market. Promoting competition by lowering barriers to entry for new HE providers was not a conspicuous success: some of the new providers proved to be a big problem for quality. Information, advice and guidance were key for improving student choice, so it seemed that the National Student Survey would play a significant part, along with university rankings and league tables. As successive ministers took up the charge the eggs were mostly transferred to the Teaching Excellence Framework basket, with TEF being championed by Jo, now Lord, Johnson. TEF began in 2016 and became a statutory requirement in the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, which also required TEF to be subject to an independent review. From the start TEF had been criticised as not actually being about teaching, or excellence, and the review by Dame Shirley Pearce, previously VC at Loughborough, began in 2018. Her review was completed before the end of 2019, but at the time of writing had still not been published.
However the ‘low quality courses’ narrative has just picked up speed. Admittedly it stuttered a little during the tenure of Chris Skidmore, who was twice briefly the universities minister, before and after Jo Johnson’s equally brief second tenure. The ‘Skidmore test’ suggested that any argument about low quality courses should specify at least one of the culprits, if it was not to be a low quality argument. However this was naturally unpopular with the narrative’s protagonists and Skidmore, having briefly been reinstalled as minister after Jo Johnson’s decision to step down, was replaced by Michele Donelan, who has remained resolutely on-message, even as any actual evidence of low quality receded even further from view. She announced in a speech to Universities UK at their September 2020 meeting that the once-praised NSS was now in the firing line: “There is a valid concern from some in the sector that good scores can more easily be achieved through dumbing down and spoon-feeding students, rather than pursuing high standards and embedding the subject knowledge and intellectual skills needed to succeed in the modern workplace. These concerns have been driven by both the survey’s current structure and its usage in developing sector league tables and rankings.”
UUK decided that they had to do something, so they ‘launched a crackdown’ (if you believe Camilla Turner in The Telegraph on 15 November 2020) by proposing, um, “a new charter aimed at ensuring institutions take a “consistent and transparent approach to identifying and improving potentially low value or low quality courses.” It’s doubtful if even UUK believed that would do the trick, and no-one else gave it much credence. But with the National Student Survey and even university league tables now deemed unreliable, and the TEF in deep freeze, the government urgently needed some policy-based evidence. It was time for this endlessly tricky problem to be dumped in the OfS in-tray. Thus it was that the OfS announced on 17 November 2020 that: “The Office for Students is consulting on its approach to regulating quality and standards in higher education. Since 2018, our focus has been on assessing providers seeking registration and we are considering whether and how we should develop our approach now that most providers are registered. This consultation is taking place at an early stage of policy development and we would like to hear your views on our proposals.”
Instant commentators were unimpressed. Were the OfS proposals on quality and standards good for the sector? Johnny Rich thought not, in his well-argued blog for the Engineering Professors’ Council on 23 November 2020, and David Kernohan provided some illustrative but comprehensive number-crunching in his Wonkhe blog on 30 November 2020: “Really, the courses ministers want to get rid of are the ones that make them cross. There’s no metric that is going to be able to find them – if you want to arbitrarily carve up the higher education sector you can’t use “following the science” as a justification.” Liz Morrish nailed it on her Academic Irregularities blog on 1 December 2020.
In the time-honoured way established by HEFCE, the OfS consultation was structured in a way which made it easy to summarise responses numerically, but much less easy to interpret their significance and their arguments. The core of the approach was a matrix of criteria, most of which all universities would expect to meet, but it included some ‘numerical baselines’, especially on something beyond the universities’ control – graduate progression to professional and managerial jobs. It also included a proposed baseline for drop-out rates. The danger of this was that it would point the finger at universities which do the most for disadvantaged groups, but here too government and OfS had a cunning plan. Nick Holland, the OfS Competition and Registration Manager, blogged on 2 December 2020 that the OfS would tackle “pockets of low quality higher education provision”, with the statement that “it is not acceptable for providers to use the proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds they have as an excuse for poor outcomes.” At a stroke universities with large proportions of disadvantaged students could either be blamed for high drop-out rates, or, if they reduced drop-out rates, they could be blamed for dropping standards. Lose-lose for the universities concerned, but win-win for the low quality courses narrative. The outrider to the low quality courses narrative was an attack on the 50% participation rate (in which Skidmore was equally culpable), which seemed hard to reconcile with a ‘levelling up’ narrative, but Michele Donelan did her best with her speech to NEON, of all audiences, calling for a new approach to social mobility, which seemed to add up to levelling up by keeping more people in FE. The shape of the baselines became clearer as OfS published Developing an understanding of projected rates of progression from entry to professional employment: methodology and results on 18 December 2020. After proper caveats about the experimental nature of the statistics, here came the indicator (and prospective baseline measure): “To derive the projected entry to professional employment measure presented here, the proportion of students projected to obtain a first degree at their original provider (also referred to as the ‘projected completion rate’) is multiplied by the proportion of Graduate Outcomes respondents in professional employment or any type of further study 15 months after completing their course (also referred to as the ‘professional employment or further study rate’).” This presumably met the government’s expectations by baking in all the non-quality-related advantages of selective universities in one number. Wonkhe’s David Kernohan despaired, on 18 December 2020, as the proposals deviated even further from anything that made sense: “Deep within the heart of the OfS data cube, a new plan is born. Trouble is, it isn’t very good.”
Is it too much to hope that OfS and government might actually look at the academic research on quality and standards in HE? Well, yes, but there is rather a lot of it. Quality in Higher Education is into its 26th year, and of course there is so much more. Even further back, in 1986 the SRHE Annual Conference theme was Standards and criteria in higher education, with an associated book edited by one of the founders of SRHE, Graeme Moodie (York). (This was the ‘Precedings’ – at that time the Society’s practice was to commission an edited volume in advance of the annual conference.) SRHE and the Carnegie Foundation subsequently sponsored a series of Anglo-American seminars on ‘Questions of Quality’. One of the seminar participants was SRHE member Tessa, now Baroness, Blackstone, who would later become the Minister for Further and Higher Education, and one of the visiting speakers for the Princeton seminar was Secretary of State for Education Kenneth Baker. At that time the Council for National Academic Awards was still functioning as the validating agency, assuring quality, for about half of the HE sector, with staff including such SRHE notables as Ron Barnett, John Brennan and Heather Eggins. When it was founded SRHE aimed to bring research and policy together; they have now drifted further apart. Less attention to peer review, but more ministers becoming peers.
Rob Cuthbert is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management, University of the West of England and Joint Managing Partner, Practical Academics