So; #QAmageddon remains the conversational topic of choice amongst wonk-kind, and merits a semi-interested “meh” from everyone else. For those just joining us, HEFCE sneaked out a fairly wide-ranging consultative review of quality assessment in HE and are inviting comments from all and sundry stakeholders, to include (but not limited to) “the sector”, the NUS and government. There’s a (limited) FAQ and a letter to vice-chancellors from HEFCE. The QAA, as one might expect, have responded with a bit of history – Million+ have weighed in, as have the Russell Group.
Other stuff that you’ll be wanting to read includes the Wonkhe coverage (don’t skip the comments), Derfel Owen’s blog and this from Hugh Jones at Sweeping Leaves. The Times Higher Education coverage has not really added anything to the debate so far.
There seems to be two emerging explanations – either this is high HE agency politics, or a belated attempt to bring more transparency into the commissioning of external bodies to undertake statutory duty. As an academic, you should care about neither of them.*
QA for HE teaching is one of those areas that makes less sense the more you look at it. Ostensibly, HEFCE have a statutory duty to assure the quality of provision in public funded universities. They employ the QAA to carry this out for them. But what the QAA actually does in this area is to assess the quality of institutional teaching quality assurance processes. They look at documentation describing these processes, and check that outputs from these processes exist.
When you complain about being over-monitored, or having to do loads of administrative form-filling, or that innovation is hamstrung by compliance requirements – you are complaining about your institutional processes… which may or may not be staggeringly over-engineered, antiquated, unwieldy or just plain terrible. You are not complaining about the QAA, which is generally something that only your registrar can sensibly do.
QAA sets out their expectations regarding internal processes in the UK Quality Code for Higher Education, which you could see as a kind of checklist for UK quality managers. (There is even a checklist version of it if you are in a hurry.)
I’ll wait here for you, go and have a little look.
Right – it’s not actually that bad, is it? The code sets out stuff that you’d probably want to do if you are a self-respecting university : keeping proper records, getting stuff validated in a useful way. Even if you wanted to start a co-operative university outside of the state system, you’d want to know who was studying there and what you were intending to teach them, and have some kind of an admissions system…
… so, when you respond to the HEFCE consultation, you could talk about how an over-enthusiastic interpretation of the quality code is engendering a cult of managerialism, how academic staff are being swamped with data requests at the expense of actual academic stuff like teaching and research. It doesn’t – on one level – matter if your institution is being critically examined by the QAA or an interested prospective student, both need to be left with the impression that the place is trustworthy, human and focused on supporting learning and discovery. Do existing quality processes – considered en masse – offer that impression?
You could talk about how a focus on process is a poor but necessary proxy for a focus on something as intangible as educational quality, but note that a centrality of process can have a negative effect on delivery. You could remind the institution that as a customer (and yes, you are a customer, you employ all the other people that work in an institution to help you be an academic. Even the Vice Chancellor and the Registrar. You spend the [overwhelming amount of the] proceeds of *your* labour on the support systems that form the non-academic component of your institution. They are yours – you are not theirs.) you want to see processes that support academia not perpetuate institutional structures.
But, moreover, you could make a case for the relationship between the student and the academic being paramount. For a human-scale higher education that does not see interactions simply as data points. Yeah, you’ll have to dress all of the hippy stuff up in management language – but this is an opportunity for radical change greater than anything in recent years.
As yet, we don’t even know how to feed in. But we need to ensure that we can and do, and for an academic simply being aware (and keeping an eye on) this transparent process as it involved is important. I’ll try to highlight the opportunities on here in the weeks to come.
*The Agency fight club interpretation explains, to an extent, the apparent suddenness of the announcement, and the way it has caught a lot of commentators by surprise. Though the contract between the QAA and HEFCE for teaching quality assessment in public universities is approaching one of the triennial review points, there is no expectation of a public consultation at this point.
Indeed, one carried out by HEFCE in 2012 pronounced the current arrangements broadly fit for purpose as a basis for meeting the emerging needs of the system. Para 4:
“General support was also expressed for our proposal to use the QAA’s existing method of Institutional Review as the basis of building a risk-based approach, given the success of this new method in ensuring rigorous, robust review which fully involves students, but is proportionate in regulatory terms.”
Basically, the “agency politics” line is predicated in the existence of a sudden and massive falling out between HEFCE and QAA management. It’s not for me to comment on what may (or may not) be happening between the two organisations – I would only to venture to suggest that this is not the way that similar disagreements between groups and agencies with overlapping interests have played out in the past. Washing one’s dirty linen in public would be a very strange choice for HEFCE or the QAA to make (if, indeed, either organisation has soiled linen to deal with).
I lean towards the “transparency” explanation – which goes along the lines of HEFCE bedding into a new role as a purchaser of specific services on behalf of the sector, supported via a BIS funding line separate from mainstream teaching funding allocation. You’d be wondering why BIS don’t procure these services themselves – and I don’t think you’d be the only one wondering that. The HEFCE argument here would be an old one – it is a “buffer body” that has a unique understanding of the English HE sector that can get the best value for money by providing precisely what the sector needs.
It can demonstrate this value by being open and transparent in the procurement process. Even the panel that runs the consultation process that designs the tender documents that prospective service delivery agencies will apply to [breathes] is being openly constituted before our very eyes. Such transparency, very open, wow.