Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education
|The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education|
|Legal status||Non-profit organisation|
|Purpose/focus||Assuring academic quality and standards in UK higher education|
|Location||Southgate House, Southgate Street, Gloucester|
|Chief Executive||Anthony McClaran|
|Main organ||QAA Board|
The stated mission of the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) is to 'safeguard standards and improve the quality of UK higher education'. Established in 1997 through the transfer of functions and staff from the former Higher Education Quality Council and the quality assessment divisions of HEFCE and HEFCW, this independent agency works to ensure that higher education qualifications in the United Kingdom (UK) are of a sound standard. It protects the public interest by checking how universities and colleges maintain their academic standards and quality. This work is supported by a range of guidance developed in cooperation with the higher education sector, principal among which is the UK Quality Code for Higher Education (the Quality Code).
QAA is the body entrusted with advising the Privy Council on which institutions should be granted degree awarding powers and the right to be called a university. Since 2011 QAA has been designated by the UK Border Agency (UKBA) to conduct educational oversight of higher education providers, to enable them to apply for 'highly trusted sponsor' status under UKBA Tier 4 regulations. Providers having, or acquiring, this status are entitled to recruit overseas students into the UK.
QAA also regulates the Access to Higher Education Diploma, a qualification that enables individuals without A-levels or the usual equivalent to enter higher education. It does this by monitoring the Access Validating Agencies that award the Diploma.
QAA's mission to safeguard standards and improve quality is supported by four strategic aims, which may be summarised as follows: to address the needs of students and be valued by them; to safeguard standards in an increasingly diverse sector; to drive improvements; and to improve public understanding of UK higher education.
- 1 Structure and funding
- 2 Role and responsibilities
- 2.1 Guidance on quality and standards
- 2.2 Review work
- 2.3 International work
- 2.4 Access to Higher Education Diploma
- 2.5 Degree awarding powers and university title
- 2.6 Complaints and concerns
- 3 History
- 4 References
- 5 External links
Structure and funding
QAA is an independent body; a company limited by guarantee operating under the legal jurisdiction of England; and a charity registered in England and Wales and in Scotland. It is not an accrediting body and does not hold a list of recognised universities or colleges. (This is held by the UK Government's Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, known as BIS). QAA's objects and constitution are set out in its Memorandum and Articles of Association. The Chief Executive since October 2009 has been Anthony McClaran, and the Board contains a broad representation of the UK higher education sector, including universities, funding councils and students. QAA has offices in Gloucester, Glasgow and London.
Around one third of QAA's funding is by annual subscription from UK universities and colleges; two thirds come from the public sector through contracts with the higher education funding bodies and government departments. Since the publication of the Browne Review in 2010 and the White Paper 'Students at the heart of the system', the higher education landscape has been continually changing, and as part of its response to these changes, QAA has set up a commercial arm, Partners in Quality, which offers services relating to quality assurance in the UK higher education sector. The work of Partners in Quality contributes to QAA's overall mission and funding.
Role and responsibilities
Guidance on quality and standards
In cooperation with the UK higher education sector, QAA maintains the Quality Code, the 'subject benchmark statements' and other guidance for helping higher education providers to meet agreed UK expectations on academic standards and quality. Draft guidance is published on QAA's website, where it is accessible for public consultation before being formally published.
The UK Quality Code for Higher Education
The UK Quality Code for Higher Education (or Quality Code) replaces the Academic Infrastructure in 2012 as the main reference point for the assurance of academic standards and quality in the UK. Higher education providers use it, in conjunction with their own internal policies and guidance, to ensure that UK expectations for standards and quality are being met. The Quality Code has three parts: Part A on standards; Part B on quality and enhancement of learning opportunities; and Part C on provision of public information. Parts A and B are subdivided into a number of chapters on particular topics. Each chapter contains a single mandatory Expectation supported by a range of discretionary Indicators. The Expectations establish what UK higher education providers expect of themselves and each other, and what students and the public can likewise expect of them.
The Quality Code contains an updated version of all the key material from the former Code of practice for the assurance of academic quality and standards in higher education as well as the content of the 'frameworks for higher education qualifications' which establish what skills and attributes students should have at the different higher education levels (these levels are different in Scotland from the rest of the UK). The Quality Code is used in conjunction with subject benchmark statements and programme specifications (descriptions of courses published by higher education providers) to design students' courses and make clear what they can expect of their UK higher education.
Each university and higher education college publishes information about its courses, together with student handbooks and other information. Part C helps them to do this effectively and provides a means of checking that this is happening.
QAA helps institutions enhance quality and standards by systematic analysis of its reports, to identify emergent themes and to catalogue good practice. Findings are published to stimulate discussion and improvement. QAA also conducts research into issues pertinent to the improvement of UK higher education, and participates in projects within the UK and internationally. This work results in a range of publications intended to promote enhancement.
QAA publishes publicly available reports on UK higher education provision. In the UK the primary responsibility for academic standards and quality rests with individual universities and colleges, each of which has its own internal quality assurance procedures. QAA reports on how well they meet these responsibilities, using processes of peer review. This work is supported by the Quality Code and other accepted benchmarks and guidelines. QAA actively involves students in this work, appointing a student to every review team and encouraging students to express their views.
Not all organisations reviewed are degree awarding bodies. Some are providers such as further education colleges, private colleges or overseas institutions, which run higher education courses by formal agreement with UK degree awarding bodies (usually universities).
Reports identify features of good practice, and QAA produces follow-up publications to summarize these findings. QAA reports also state whether, and to what extent, providers are meeting UK expectations about: academic standards; the quality of the student learning experience; the enhancement of the student learning experience; and the quality of public information provided. They make recommendations to promote improvement (enhancement), and providers follow these up with appropriate action.
The ongoing debate about 'risk-based quality assurance' is likely to result in the length of time between reviews varying from one institution to another, according to perceived 'risk'. A six-year cycle is likely to be typical; however at time of writing this situation is still evolving.
QAA uses different methods for its reviews, depending on the type of educational provision under consideration. At time of writing the main review methods are:
- Institutional Review in England and Northern Ireland (IRENI) which is used to review higher education provided by degree awarding bodies in England and Northern Ireland
- Institutional Review (Wales) which is used to review higher education provided by degree awarding bodies in Wales
- Enhancement-Led Institutional Review which is used to review higher education provided by degree awarding bodies in Scotland
- Integrated Quality and Enhancement Review, soon to be replaced by Review of Higher Education in Further Education, which (as the latter name suggests) is used to review the provision of UK higher education programmes of study in further education colleges, by arrangement with degree awarding bodies
- Review for Educational Oversight which is used for private colleges providing education on behalf of degree awarding bodies, enabling such colleges to obtain 'highly trusted sponsor status' under Tier 4 regulations of the UK Border Agency.
Further details of QAA's review activity are available on their website.
QAA’s review methods operate at the level of whole institutions and do not generally look at individual courses or programmes of study, neither do they review or evaluate students' work. They do, however, check that the providers have in place robust processes for:
- safeguarding standards
- ensuring the student experience is of an appropriate quality
- external examining.
Sometimes certain responsibilies may be delegated by the degree awarding body to a partner institution, but ultimate responsibility for academic standards always rests with the degree awarding body.
Involvement of students in review work
To ensure that students are directly involved in quality assurance, QAA includes student members on its review teams. QAA also works with the National Union of Students (NUS), Universities UK and GuildHE to prepare students for review work.
QAA takes a leading role in international developments in standards and quality, and is a full member of the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA, standing for European Network of Quality Assurance). QAA had its first ENQA membership review in April 2008. The review team reported that it was 'consistently impressed by the calibre and professionalism of all those contributing to the work of QAA in maintaining quality and standards across HE in the UK'.
Access to Higher Education Diploma
QAA is the regulator for Access to Higher Education Diploma which enables adults without A levels or their equivalent to progress to higher education. Organisations known as Access Validating Agencies (AVAs), are responsible for validating and reviewing Access courses, and awarding the Diploma to successful students. QAA licenses and monitors the AVAs and publishes information about its findings.
Degree awarding powers and university title
It is illegal for a body to award, or claim to award, a UK degree, or to call itself a UK university, unless it is authorised to do so by the UK government. QAA advises the UK government (the Privy Council) on the merits of applications for degree awarding powers or university title.
Complaints and concerns
QAA handles complaints or concerns relating to cases where a UK higher education provider is suspected of failing to meet national expectations for standards and quality. In such investigations it is concerned with general systemic issues of standard and quality. Complaints relating to individual experiences and grievances should be referred to the college or university's internal complaints procedure in the first instance. If this fails to resolve the issue such complaints can be referred to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator.
More information about making a complaint or asking QAA to investigate a concern can be found on the QAA website.
The Joint Planning Group for Quality Assurance in Higher Education recommended in 1996 that the then two streams of quality assurance in higher education - Subject Review and Academic Audit (which had been in use since 1991) - should be brought together under a single body. This led to the foundation of the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) in April 1997.
The Dearing Report and its legacy
The Dearing Report published in 1997 expanded QAA’s role. In addition to carrying out reviews and audits, it would now be called upon to provide public information on quality assurance, verify standards, set up a higher education qualifications framework, develop a code of practice, provide subject benchmark information and establish a pool of external examiners. Most of these proposals were adopted, and QAA's position as the UK's sole agency with responsibility for the assurance and enhancement of the quality and standards of higher education was consolidated.
Between 1997 and 2001 QAA, as a result of the Dearing proposals, QAA began to develop the Academic Infrastructure (a set of UK benchmarks for quality and standards) and a new, UK-wide review process of Academic Review which comprised elements of both Subject Review and Academic Audit - with an emphasis on the latter. The new process was introduced in Scotland, but before it had become fully operational across the UK a number of English universities complained about the administrative burden that this approach entailed, leading to a rethink by the Westminster government. The Scottish and Welsh higher education authorities took this opportunity to set up their own national arrangements, while in England QAA worked with the bodies representing higher education institutions (Universities UK and Guild HE)to devise a modified approach known as Institutional Audit. QAA Scotland developed the procedure known as Enhancement-Led Institutional Review (ELIR), while in Wales the method known as Institutional Review was established. Northern Ireland followed England and adopted Institutional Audit. QAA remained the organisation charged with developing and undertaking these activities.
It was agreed that in England there would be a transitional period of three years (2002 to 2005) during which all higher education institutions would undergo their first Institutional Audit. Thereafter audits would take place on a six-yearly cycle. In the year prior to their audit, institutions underwent 'developmental engagements' - unpublished subject-based reviews to support internal quality assurance. There were also 'discipline audit trails' (DATs) - selective subject-based enquiries that enabled a phased reduction of the subject focus of QAA reviews. In 2005 a revised Institutional Audit model was developed and adopted with the agreement of the representative bodies and HEFCE. This removed the DATs, thereby freeing time in the audit process to explore a broader range of topics and themes. This model continued in use on a six-year cycle until 2011.
Criticism and reform
In the summer of 2008, following a lecture given by Professor Geoffrey Alderman at the University of Buckingham, an urgent parliamentary inquiry was ordered into his allegations (made in the lecture) concerning the decline of academic standards in British higher education and the alleged part played by the Quality Assurance Agency in that decline. At that parliamentary inquiry (17 July 2008) the chairman of the House of Commons’ Select Committee on Universities condemned the Agency as ‘a toothless old dog’ and declared that the British degree classification system had ‘descended into farce.’ Alderman himself gave evidence to the Select Committee, whose report (2 August 2009) amounted to a strong endorsement of his views. In October 2009 a new Chief Executive was appointed (Anthony McClaran, formerly of UCAS), and measures were put in place to strengthen QAA's reputation for upholding standards and identifying best practice in higher education. These included an agenda to increase student participation and public engagement, with an emphasis on clearer, more accessible information and a less formal style of reporting. However, In 2012 the Science & Technology Committee of the House of Lords, after considering the working of the QAA, concluded that it was still not fit for purpose:http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201213/ldselect/ldsctech/37/3708.htm .
The Browne Report and its legacy
The publication of the government-commissioned Browne Report in October 2010, and the subsequent government White Paper 'Students at the heart of the system' in 2011, heralded far-reaching changes in UK higher education and had a substantial impact on QAA's work. In 2011 QAA, in consultation with the higher education sector, began to replace the Academic Infrastructure with a new suite of documents setting out UK national expectations about standards and quality in higher education. The phasing in of the Quality Code (due for completion in 2013) was accompanied by the launch in 2012 of a corresponding review method for higher education awarding bodies in England and Northern Ireland, called Institutional Review for England and Northern Ireland.
In response to the Browne Report, the government announced its confidence in QAA. In spring 2011 the government also announced that the UK Border Agency would be requiring all private colleges that provide higher education for UK degree-awarding bodies to undergo a standards and quality review by QAA. A successful outcome would be essential in order to obtain 'Tier 4 accreditation' and be authorised to recruit overseas students. This formed a large area of new work for QAA, which conducted over 200 educational oversight reviews in the first year of operation.
The ongoing post-Browne debate about 'risk-based quality assurance' centres around the issue of whether some more established or highly trusted institutions should be subject to less frequent reviews.
||This article uses bare URLs for citations, which may be threatened by link rot. (August 2012)|
- Garner, Richard (June 17, 2008). "Lecturers 'Pressed to Boost Degree Results'". The Independent. independent.co.uk. Archived from the original on 25 August 2010. Retrieved June 3, 2013.
- Adams, Stephen (July 17, 2008). "University degree system 'is a farce'". The Telegraph: News. Telegraph Media Group Limited. Retrieved June 3, 2013.
- "The House of Commons - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Reports". Publications.parliament.uk. Retrieved 2012-09-01.