QAA Annual Conference 2015 and the Future of Quality Assessment

It’s an open secret in the sector that HEFCE’s draft proposals for the future of quality assessment threaten the existence of the QAA as the independent agent conducting reviews of institutions. The reported delay in publishing the proposals meant that the timing of the QAA’s annual conference, held in Leeds on 11th June, was somewhat unfortunate as delegates were likely to be aware of the proposals but the QAA could not speak to them directly.

The programme for the event (and its content) is worth considering in terms of how it reflects QAA’s thinking at this time.

The opening address was delivered by its Chief Executive, Anthony McClaran. His was essentially a pitch for the continuation of the QAA’s current role based on established, internationally-respected principles of co-regulation respecting institutional autonomy, peer review, the inclusion of students in all processes and a proportionate, risk-based approach. Hinting at the need for evolutionary change, such as an increased role for data, refinement of the UK Quality Code and a greater focus on student outcomes, Mr McClaran nevertheless put forward the existing approach as fit-for-purpose and resilient in times of change.

The other central conference address, delivered by Padraig Wilson from Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI), and items delivered by John Sawkins (Pro Vice-Chancellor from Heriot-Watt University) and Ian Kimber of the QAA, provided summaries of the role of the quality agencies in other countries: Ireland; Scotland and Australia, respectively. There were cautionary notes sounded at various times – how can the UK continue to play a key role in the Bologna process without peer review? Does a RAG-rated data-driven risk assessment based on unknown thresholds (as used by TEQSA – Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency – in Australia) undermine confidence? How can metrics be used as a proxy for academic standards? Would the loss of co-regulation lead to a regulator like Ofcom, focused on enforcing consumer law and promoting competition?

One common theme that did seem to resonate through the sessions was the need for more regular, annual contact and reporting. The QAA has recently reintroduced its liaison visits, which is a tacit admission that it had lost contact with some of the day-to-day issues.

In terms of annual reporting the case was made that by checking-in every year any issues can be anticipated and discussed rather than left to develop across a whole institutional review cycle. There are varying approaches to this: in Ireland, provider self-monitoring involves the submission of reports to QQI which “may generate conditions, recommendations and other actions for follow-up” (QQI, 2014, 4). These are supplemented by annual dialogue meetings. Similarly, in Scotland institution-led review is a annual process requiring institutions to conduct subject or programme level reviews which are examined as part of the periodic review process (Enhancement-Led Institutional Review).

A final point about Peer Review. The QAA’s method is said by Anthony McClaran to be an internationally-recognised approach. We heard that TEQSA do not use a panel-based process but instead appoint experts in the areas that the review will cover, as determined by the findings of the first stage of the review process (i.e. a risk-based approach). I’ve written a post before on the pros and cons of peer review (Link). The pitfalls (avoiding bias, both perceived and real (conflicts of interest); variability of outcomes between reviewers; time pressures) are outweighed by the implications of the proposed changes – that the review method itself and any semblance of independence may be no more.

Quality and Qualification Ireland (2014) Policy on Monitoring


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