Conference Report: QAA Annual Conference 2016 ‘Right Touch’

The main sector conference for quality assurance in higher education was held at the University of Birmingham last week amidst a backdrop of uncertainty about the future approach to quality assurance.

The programme featured highly pertinent topics and a range of prominent and distinguished speakers, giving space for both a passioned defence of the QAA’s mission and continued role and opportunity for new proposals from HEFCE and BIS to be discussed.  The timing of the occasion: post-HEFCE proposals on the future of quality assessment; during the competitive tendering process for packages of QA work; and prior to the technical details of the TEF, led Susan Lapworth, the Director of Regulation and Assurance from HEFCE to comment that the “the circumstances were a little odd right now”.  Meanwhile, Douglas Blackstock, Chief Executive of the QAA speaking about the tendering process said in his keynote speech that he did not want to comment on the specifics of their proposals so as not to give away competitor advantage.

These uncertainties affected the first event, a ‘Quality Question Time‘, chaired by Mark Leach, Editor-in-Chief and Director, Wonkhe and featuring panellists from the Russell Group, FE sector, QAA Student Advisory Board and GuildHE.  With questions such as ‘is there a crisis in QA?’ and ‘should a funding council be involved in quality assurance?’ it was disappointing that many of the answers were brief and nuanced rather than of the usual temperature of a question time debate.  Even an attempt by the Chair to introduce the classic comparability question (along the lines of ‘is a 2:1 from x the same as a 2:1 from y?’) in relation to the TEF failed to generate any notable lines.

With the BIS representation failing to appear it was the sole task of the QAA’s Chief Executive, Douglas Blackstock to deliver the morning’s keynote address on day 2.  The text of the speech can be found here: it was a robust defence of the agency’s record from its founding in 1997, through reams of statistics on review activity to how it has changed and evolved in the recent past.  QAA intends to evolve and adapt to the changing landscape, recognising that there will not be the same volume and scale of review activity but continuing with its core mission by transforming its organisational structures and providing more value for subscribers with new services for the sector. Some of the rhetoric here sounded quite business-like, e.g. ‘client-focused’, ‘cost-effective’ and offering ‘products and services for different market sectors’ and the QAA has already diversified its activities in order to secure its longer-term future.

The mood of the address was bullish and at other times during the conference it was noticeable that there were glowing references given by speakers, such as David Willetts, for aspects such as the QAA’s international reputation. Conference delegates were also invited to consider what ‘right touch’, the event’s tag-line, meant to them: an invitation that a cynical mind may see aimed at gathering supporting evidence for the agency’s approach.

Of the proposals themselves, Susan Lapworth from HEFCE outlined a ‘New Operating Model for Quality Assessment’: a summary of the recent HEFCE publication. The rationale provided was that the sector was now more diverse and complex and it was therefore right for a single regulator to bring together all aspects of regulation and refocus them ‘in the student interest’. Ms Lapworth stated that it was now ‘impossible to separate quality scrutiny from other scrutiny’ (such as the financial health of an institution) and this would now be achieved through the annual submission and five-yearly visit.

An example dashboard was shown for the annual provider review of a fictional university. This included standard league table metrics such as NSS as well as an analysis of student views and financial information. It was to look at a provider ‘in the round’ through a ‘student interest lens’. Where problems were found a possible outcome would be that a credible action plan was needed to address issues. HEFCE say this is a founded on a rich understanding of an institution before reaching a judgement and is not a crude approach.

HEFCE is to run pilot activities during 2016/17 both of the new annual provider review process and, via a UK-wide steering group, the different aspects of the degree standards theme running through their proposals (e.g. a possible range of degree algorithms). QAA says it has influenced HEFCE’s proposals and supports aspects such as a register showing what qualifications each provider offers and a ‘revised and simplified’ quality code. More to follow on this in a future blog post…


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