Academic expertise and independent judgement are at the forefront of our approach to assessing quality. Nick Holland, our Head of Quality and Standards, gives an update on future arrangements for quality and standards assessments.
This month the Office for Students (OfS) took on the assessment activities previously delivered by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) in its role as the designated quality body (DQB). This means we are now responsible for assessing the quality and standards of courses offered by universities and colleges looking to register with us and seeking their own degree awarding powers.
We’ll also be undertaking activity to assure the quality of assessments delivered by universities within integrated degree apprenticeships (known as external quality assurance of end-point assessments).
The OfS is not new to the business of assessing quality. With strengthened regulatory requirements in place, we’re increasingly active in this area. We have been undertaking a series of assessments of the quality of business and management courses at higher education providers that have involved asking a team of academic experts to visit a provider.
These assessments focus on the academic experience students are receiving, including the academic support they get, rather than the policies that a provider may have in place. We are also undertaking assessments in relation to student outcomes – the rate at which students continue and complete their degrees, and their progression onto employment or further study.
Additionally, we have opened a number of investigations into the credibility of degrees. These investigations are looking at the reasons for sharp increases in the rates of students being awarded first and upper second class degrees in individual universities and colleges.
Building our pool of assessors
At the end of last year, our chief executive Susan Lapworth introduced the core team leading on quality at the OfS. The team has considerable higher education experience and expertise. It includes senior academics and administrators, education practitioners, and people who have worked extensively in the sector, in the Higher Education Funding Council England (HEFCE), at the QAA and with other regulators.
We have already recruited more than 70 academics to a pool of assessors to provide us with the expert academic judgement we need to deliver our ongoing programme of visit-based quality assessments. These colleagues are highly credible expert practitioners drawn from a broad range of providers with varied subject specialist expertise. They include staff at different stages in their higher education careers, including several current or former pro-vice-chancellors, deans and heads of school.
We’re now increasing the size of this pool as we take over the assessment activities previously undertaken for us by the QAA. We’re recruiting across a broad range of subjects and have received over 300 applications, once again from experienced academics from universities and colleges of varying sizes and specialisms.
We will be inviting expressions of interest from the academic community as our need for particular subject and other expertise develops. Successful applicants are provided with training and support by our team.
Using expert academic judgement
We’ve always been clear that we will draw on expert academic judgement to help inform our decisions about compliance with our conditions of registration. We look to our assessors to provide us with independent advice based on their expert academic judgement. This can inform our regulatory decisions about a provider’s compliance with our quality and standards conditions and help us determine what, if any, action we should take as a result.
As a regulator, we are interested in supporting students to access, succeed and progress through higher education and in their careers after graduation. This is reflected in our approach, which looks at students’ academic experience – the quality of the learning, teaching and assessment they receive from their university or college – as well as their outcomes. We will continue to recruit colleagues from the sector able to reach robust academic judgements focused on these areas.
Our upcoming assessment activity
Over the next year we’ll be undertaking a range of assessment activity:
- We will deliver a series of Quality and Standards Reviews (QSRs). This is work that would previously have been undertaken by the QAA. The reviews, which will involve visits to providers, will be carried out by teams of academic assessors. The teams will produce independent reports based on their academic judgement.
- We will assess providers seeking registration. These assessments will be made against our revised initial conditions B7 (quality) and B8 (standards) and will also involve assessment by a team of academics. We'll be publishing guidance on this shortly.
- Degree awarding powers (DAPs) will continue to be assessed by teams of expert academic assessors against the same criteria set out in our regulatory framework. We will be refreshing our operational guidance for this.
- We have been talking to providers that have already submitted registration or DAPs applications about how the process will work for them. Our aim is to ensure they are assessed on a similar basis to any assessment that would have been delivered by the QAA to reduce disruption and burden.
- There will be no change to our approach to assessing the quality of registered providers. We were not using the QAA for these assessments. We plan to publish operational guidance for providers to help them to understand what to expect.
Independence and continuity
The practical arrangements and administration to support these assessment activities will now be undertaken by the OfS instead of a designated body. But there are not significant differences between the old and new arrangements. There are no changes to the quality requirements providers will be tested against, and the assessments that have been conducted by the QAA will continue to draw on the expertise of independent academic experts, and to have a particular focus on the academic experience for students.
We will continue to discuss longer term arrangements for quality assessment with sector representative groups, keeping universities and colleges informed as these discussions progress.