Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education
|Legal status||Non-profit organisation|
|Purpose||Assuring academic quality and standards in UK higher education|
The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) is an independent agency in the United Kingdom established 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 and quality. It checks how universities and colleges maintain their academic standards and quality and, to support this work, develops guidance in cooperation with the higher education sector, principal among which is the UK Quality Code for Higher Education (Quality Code).
QAA's main business is to conduct external peer reviews of all UK degree-awarding bodies (including universities - known as 'recognised bodies') as well as colleges that provide higher education programmes in partnership with UK degree-awarding bodies ('listed bodies'). Since 2011 QAA has been designated by the UK government to conduct 'educational oversight' of unlisted higher education providers wishing to become 'highly trusted sponsors' entitled to recruit overseas students under UK Tier 4 regulations. Similarly, since 2013, QAA conducts reviews of the management of individual courses that receive public funding, where these courses are not provided by recognised or listed bodies and the providers have not undergone a separate educational oversight review.
QAA is the body entrusted with advising the Privy Council of the United Kingdom, via government ministers, on which institutions should be granted degree awarding powers and the right to be called a university. 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 reviewing and monitoring the Access Validating Agencies that award the Diploma.
- 1 Strategic aims
- 2 Structure and funding
- 3 Role and responsibilities
- 3.1 Guidance on quality and standards
- 3.2 Higher education review work
- 3.3 Work to improve quality in higher education
- 3.4 International relations
- 3.5 Advisory role on degree awarding powers and university title
- 3.6 Regulation of the Access to Higher Education Diploma
- 4 History
- 5 References
- 6 External links
QAA's mission to safeguard standards and improve quality is supported by four strategic aims, which may be summarised as: 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.
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 for higher education (but see below under Access to Higher Education Diploma) 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 (BIS. QAA's objects and constitution are set out in its Memorandum and Articles of Association. The Chief Executive is 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, London and Cardiff.
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. QAA also has a commercial arm called QAA Enterprises, which runs training and briefing events relevant to the provision and quality assurance of higher education, and 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 UK Quality Code for Higher Education (Quality Code - see below), the subject benchmark statements for bachelor's and master's degrees, and other guidance for helping higher education providers to meet agreed UK expectations. Where appropriate, QAA also works with professional, regulatory and statutory bodies, and employers, to ensure that its guidance is fit for purpose. Draft guidance is published on QAA's website (via a tab on the home page), where it is accessible for public consultation before being formally published.
The UK Quality Code for Higher Education (Quality Code)
The UK Quality Code for Higher Education (Quality Code) replaced another set of guidance (called the 'Academic Infrastructure') in 2012 as the main resource for checking on the quality of UK higher education. It sets out 'what higher education providers expect of themselves', and 'what students may expect of them'. It has three parts: Part A: Setting and maintaining academic standards; Part B: Assuring and enhancing academic quality; and Part C: Information about higher education provision. Parts A and B are subdivided into a number of chapters on particular topics. Each chapter, and also Part C, contains a single mandatory 'expectation' supported by discretionary 'indicators of good practice'.
The Quality Code was prepared following a two-year consultation process (2011–13), and updates are ongoing, with each chapter being offered in draft for consultation when due for revision.
Part A, which focuses on standards, contains the two 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 since in Scotland they form part of the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework). These are separately referred to as The framework for higher education qualifications in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and The framework for qualifications of higher education institutions in Scotland. While Wales and Scotland have integrated academic credit and qualifications frameworks, England has a separate credit framework, also maintained by QAA.
Part B focuses on the quality of 'learning opportunities' This includes everything from teaching and student support to the provision of libraries and the eliciting of students' views on their education experience.
Part C supports universities in the requirement to publish trustworthy and reliable information about their courses, setting out an expectation and indicators of how it might be met (the same structure used in other chapters of the Quality Code).
Higher education providers use the Quality Code, in conjunction with their own internal policies, subject benchmark statements and other guidance, to design the programmes of study that lead to their higher education awards (including academic degrees). This helps them ensure that their courses meet UK expectations for standards and quality. QAA reviewers also use the Quality Code, checking that all the expectations are met when they conduct a review. If an organisation fails to meet an expectation, the review team will make a judgement accordingly, and recommend how the problem may be rectified (see section 'Higher education review work').
Higher education review work
UK degree-awarding bodies (mainly universities) are responsible for the quality of their awards (academic degrees and other awards such as graduate or postgraduate certificates and diplomas). Similarly, primary responsibility for the quality of the learning experience rests with the university and/or college providing it. Higher education providers have their own internal quality assurance procedures, which enable them to check regularly that standards and quality, together with the information they provide about their courses, meet UK expectations. QAA provides external review, to assure students, government and the public that providers are meeting their responsibilities.
To do this, QAA uses peer review, and has a number of review methods, adapted to the type and/or location of provider being reviewed. All review methods use the Quality Code as benchmark for expectations, along with other accepted benchmarks and guidelines. In order to ensure that student's views are considered, QAA appoints at least one student to every review team, invites a 'written submission' from students, and arranges for its review teams to meet groups of students. QAA works with the National Union of Students (NUS), Universities UK and GuildHE to prepare students for review work.
Each review results in a report containing judgements on whether UK expectations are met. The categories in which these judgements are made mirror the three parts of the Quality Code (on standards, quality - including improvement or 'enhancement' of quality - and public information). Reports make recommendations where expectations are not met - or where improvement is considered necessary or desirable. Providers are expected to show that they have made progress on these by the time of the next review. The review team may also 'commend' institutions that exceed expectations. In addition to the judgements and recommendations, reports also cite examples of good practice. Both the recommendations and the good practice are made available in searchable databases on the QAA website (see below under 'Work to improve quality in higher education').
Each institution is normally reviewed every six years.
QAA uses different methods for its reviews, depending on the type and location of educational provision: whether the provider is a recognised or listed body or neither, and whether it is located in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.
A new review method is being phased in from 2013–14, in response to the coalition government's education reforms and debates about risk-based quality assurance. Higher Education Review is applicable both to degree-awarding bodies (mainly universities) and to other listed bodies (mainly further education colleges) in England and Northern Ireland. It replaces Institutional Review for England and Northern Ireland (IRENI) and Review for College Higher Education (RCHE) and sets out to be more flexible than these methods. A specially adapted variant of Higher Education Review will also be phased in for use in Wales, when it will replace Institutional Review (Wales). Similarly, providers requiring educational oversight will come under Higher Education Review when the existing review methods for these providers are phased out. At time of writing, higher education institutions in Scotland continue to be reviewed under the existing method of Enhancement-Led Institutional Review.
QAA’s review methods operate at the level of the whole institution and check that the provider meets all the expectations of the Quality Code. This includes:
- setting and maintaining expected standards, as determined by the UK qualifications frameworks and subject benchmark statements, together with other relevant guidance
- meeting UK expectations about the quality of the student experience, and seeking ways to enhance this
- providing trustworthy and reliable information about their courses
- listening to, and responding to, students' views about quality
- robust and reliable use of external examining
- making provision for diverse learning needs
- giving consideration to students' employability.
QAA reviews do not generally look at individual courses or programmes of study, neither do they review or evaluate students' work.
Work to improve quality in higher education
As well as checking that standards meet or exceed minimum expectations, QAA looks at the quality of the learning experience, and encourages higher education providers to improve this. Its reports contain recommendations and cite examples of good practice. Both sets of data are included in searchable databases on the Agency's website. QAA also publishes analysis of the collective findings of its reports (to identify emergent trends), gathers information on particular themes of relevance to the higher education community, and maintains a database of empirical research about higher education.
Investigation of complaints and concerns
Where a UK higher education provider is suspected of 'systemic failings' in its responsibilities to meet expectations for standards and quality, and the matter has not been satisfactorily resolved by the provider's internal complaints procedure, QAA can investigate. The concern needs to be supported by evidence. A concerns investigation results in a published report.
QAA does not investigate individual grievances or complaints about 'isolated examples of bad practice'. If a student has a grievance that has not been resolved by the college or university's internal complaints procedure, the matter should be referred to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator.
QAA takes a leading role in international developments in standards and quality and is a member of the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA, standing for European Network of Quality Assurance) and of the International Network for Quality Assurance Agencies (INQAAHE). QAA underwent a successful ENQA review in 2013, confirming that it is fully compliant with European quality assurance standards.
QAA conducts review visits to non-UK locations where higher education is offered by, or on behalf of, UK degree-awarding bodies; such provision might be either located at one of the degree-awarding body's own campuses or arranged through a partnership with a local provider (see section on 'Higher education review work').
QAA has cooperation agreements with a number of other educational bodies and quality assurance agencies, both in the UK and internationally. In 2014 the Agency was added to the European Quality Assurance Register (EQAR).
Advisory role on degree awarding powers and university title
QAA advises the Privy Council of the United Kingdom, via government ministers, on the merits of applications for degree awarding powers or university title. No organization may award degrees or call itself a university in the UK unless authorised to do so by the government. Applications are considered by a dedicated QAA committee, enabling the QAA Board to offer reliable advice to government ministers.
Regulation of the Access to Higher Education Diploma
QAA is the regulator for the 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.
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, the Agency was now called upon to provide assurance about standards and quality, 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 assuring and enhancing standards and quality in higher education was consolidated.
Between 1997 and 2001 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 2008 an urgent parliamentary inquiry was ordered into allegations, made in a lecture by Professor Geoffrey Alderman at the University of Buckingham, concerning the decline of academic standards in British higher education and the alleged role of the Quality Assurance Agency in that decline. At the 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.
In 2012 the Science and Technology Committee of the House of Lords, after considering the working of QAA, concluded that it was still not fit for purpose because its reviews were based on a 'threshold level' of standards that 'allowed no assessment of quality above that threshold' (paragraph 124) and that more needed to be done to improve quality (paragraph 125). The report recommended that QAA should involve employers in the development of subject benchmark statements and in the quality assurance of standards (paragraphs 130-132).
QAA responded to the coalition government's education reforms by developing review methods to meet the need for more flexible quality assurance, providing searchable databases of its information, engaging more closely with students and employers, and embarking on a review of its subject benchmark statements. The Agency has also extended its network of partnerships with other relevant agencies in the UK and abroad.
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.
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