QSN (Quality:Strategy:Network) Conference, 1st-2nd October 2015

It’s autumn conference season but for me instead of Brighton or Manchester read Aston Conference Centre and the 10th annual QSN (Quality:Strategy:Network) conference.

QSN is a network for senior quality staff and its conference provides an opportunity to discuss key issues and share thoughts via a programme of presentations and themed discussions. This was my second time at the conference and I found it a valuable opportunity to meet-up with and hear the latest news from knowledgeable colleagues at other universities.

As well as the conference and a couple of events during the year, QSN also co-ordinates a collective response to sector-wide consultations. For example, a copy of the QSN submission to HEFCE’s Quality Assessment Review was provided to delegates (the QSN website currently only houses a response to the earlier consultation from February and therefore the latest submission is not, as far as I’m aware, in the public domain).

The theme of the conference, Future Directions, reflected the conference’s aim of taking a step back from the day-to-day to discuss the wider picture and much of the debate concerned the state of flux the sector finds itself in with consultations and enquiries prompting more questions than answers.

The keynote presentations from Alex Bols (Deputy CEO of GuildHE) and Phil Cardew (Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Leeds Beckett University) critiqued HEFCE’s proposals for the future of quality assessment. Alex Bols has published the text of his speech here and both speakers raised concerns about the loss of independent peer review; the over-reliance on external examiners to assure standards; and the increased role given to governing bodies – undermined by differences in their size and composition – with the suggested involvement of consultants acting as advisers to governing bodies wiping out whatever savings there may have been from removing external peer review. There was a sense that the sector has failed to articulate its concerns about the proposals effectively and an assumed consensus has allowed to form that reducing the burden and cutting back on external review is universally welcomed. It’s worth reading the Russell Group’s response to the consultation, which, although reiterating their proposal for a more risk-based review method, sets out similarly negative consequences of the proposals, including:

  • Compromising existing university governing practice
  • Increased cost to institutions to ensure regulatory compliance …
  • Compromising and negatively impacting on the external examiner process

The more recent and prominent coverage of the TEF and BIS Select Committee Inquiry has muddied the waters and the lack of a cohesive response is unsurprising given the confusing picture – it’s uncertain right now what the future holds for HEFCE, let alone their proposals. This was the back-drop to much of the debate around the scheduled sessions.

The other main presentations at the conference were on student engagement in Scotland and a research project commissioned by QSN into how universities use data to support quality management. The latter was complemented by a case study from De Montfort University into their use and development of an off-the-shelf data visualisation tool for reporting purposes that had been incredibly well-received by both academic and administrative staff at the University. What was striking to me about DMU’s set-up was a) the proliferation of reports across the institution up to exec level and b) the access to data given to external examiners and collaborative partners. The system’s success, in terms of its embeddedness and reception by staff, bred further demands on data reports and, arguably, a data-driven culture. That said, DMU is likely to be well-placed to respond to the metric demands that the TEF will bring. The QSN research project is due for publication in early 2016.

The other themed session I attended concerned the contract between students and providers and how the relationship would be affected by the recent CMA guidance. My previous blog post provides the background to this topic and this session provided an opportunity to get a flavour of the approach other universities were taking. Based on the anecdotal evidence of the institutions represented (and the staff present who may have a greater or lesser involvement in any related work) there is a great deal of disparity between institutions in terms of whether they have changed their practices. This may be due to confidence that they already provide the right level of information to applicants or a judgement based on their own interpretation of the guidance (which may reflect whether they have spoken to any education lawyers).

Without the opportunity to compare and contrast the detail, the disparity instead was revealed by the extent to which changes had been made, i.e. to undergraduate course information only, if taking the CMA guidance at face value, or across all provision. There were different levels of concern expressed about the impact it would have on course information: from a possible shift to more generic and less informative module and course information to mitigate risk; to incredulity that the sector had not lobbied strongly for a rejection of the CMA’s approach with a defence of the benefits of course changes, as students benefit from being exposed to the latest innovations in, for example assessment practice or subject content.

The group felt that one positive aspect of the intervention was in addressing inconsistencies and providing a mechanism to tackle areas normally at arm’s length such as recruitment agents, who may take more liberties when describing and selling courses to potential students. The over-riding sense of uncertainty returned when considering what happens next in this untested area of law and delegates no doubt returned to their institutions with a renewed sense of unease.


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