Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers
17 JULY 2008
Chairman: Good morning and welcome to
our witnesses this morning: Peter Williams, the Chief Executive
of Quality Assurance Agency; Dr Stephen Jackson, Director of Reviews
at QAA; Dr Nick Harris, Director of Development and Enhancement
Group at QAA; and Douglas Blackstock, Director of Administration
at QAA. Welcome to you.
Mr Boswell: A point of
order, Mr Chairman, if I may. May I mention to the Committee a
minor interest I have in this matter as a member of the governing
board of the University of Wales Institute Cardiff. I mention
that now specifically because our application for research degree
awarding powers is currently under consideration by QAA.
Chairman: Could I declare that I am a
member of the Court of University of Birmingham. I do not quite
know what that means, but I put that on the record.
Dr Evan Harris: I am a member of the
Court of Oxford Brookes University.
Mr Wilson: I think I am a member of the
Court of Reading University.
Mr Boswell: I am a member of the Court
of Nottingham University.
Q1 Chairman: You can see that we
are incredibly well qualified to be able to discuss this. I would
like to thank you particularly for coming at short notice. We
very much appreciate it. This is a one-off inquiry looking at
the three reports which you published in June. The reports have
become a focus for allegations that universities are "marking
softly", that they are awarding higher grades because of
the pressures of league tables, and, also, the particular accusation
that they are attracting international students because they are
paying unregulated fees. There has been a lot of speculation in
the media following comments you also made. As the Committee that
has responsibility for scrutinising higher education, we thought
it was important to give you and your colleagues the opportunity
put the record straight, but also for us in our scrutiny role
to see that the standards within higher education and particularly
the role of the QAA are being maintained and upheld. That is the
purpose of this session. As always, I think we are trying to approach
our work in terms of adding value to the system rather than simply
trying to find fault. What is the purpose of the Quality Assurance
Agency? It appears to me that you provide rather more consultancy
services than you do acting as an auditor or inspector.
Mr Williams: Chairman, could I
say that we very much welcome this opportunity to discuss our
work with you. We are pleased that the Committee feels this is
a proper area for it to look at. You ask whether we are essentially
consultants or auditors. The answer to that is that we are auditors
principally. I wrote an article once about what kind of dog is
the QAA: guard dog, watchdog, lap-dog and so on, and I think we
should consider ourselves a watchdog principally; that is to say,
we go and look at institutions. We have a remit to find out and
check that they are managing their quality and standards in an
appropriate way and in a proper way bearing in mind their legal
powers. That is the principal purpose of our job. Having said
that, I think it would be remiss of us if, within that, we were
not to use the information we get from those inspections to inform
the sector of what is going on, what is good practice, what is
not so good practice. That, essentially, is what these three reports
Q2 Chairman: The taxpayer has a real
interest in the work you do.
Mr Williams: Yes.
Q3 Chairman: Whilst we understand
you are not a government-appointed bodyand perhaps we will
return to whether you should be lateryou have no teeth,
have you? You are just a toothless dog, if I might continue with
the canine analogy.
Mr Williams: It is interesting
that, once we get on to the canine analogy, we always end up on
the dental analogies. The answer to that is that you really need
to talk to those institutions to which we have awarded the judgment
of "no confidence" or "limited confidence"
in our audits, because the impact on them is very severe; that
is to say, the effect on two institutions has been that one institution
has changed its name and the bank manager of the other reduced
their credit rating.
Q4 Chairman: Ofsted can effectively
close a school; ETI
can close a college. I am not aware of any higher education institution
that has been closed as a result of your work.
Mr Williams: Higher Education
institutions are independent legal entities. They would only be
closed if they could not afford to keep going. It is not for us
to close anything down. We have in the past been the cause, ultimately,
of the resignation of a vice-chancellor but it is not in our remit
to close universities down.
Q5 Mr Boswell: Perhaps I could ask
two questions. One is on the funding model. Is there any driver,
in terms of the funding model, where somebody who has been funded
by you might lose support? The second one is at the academic level.
I am awarebut perhaps it would be helpful if you could
confirm for the Committeethat once degree awarding powers,
whether taught or researched, have been awarded, on your recommendation,
they are not withdrawn. Is that still the case? Can you say, in
principle, that because something dreadful has gone wrongand
I am not talking about some historic case, I am talking about
a hypothetical casethis should not in such circumstances
be withdrawal of degree awarding powers or even, ultimately, a
Mr Williams: We now receive something
like two-thirds of our income from funding councils across the
UK. Given that we are contracted to deliver the reassurance they
need under the 1992 Act, we do that through a contract with them.
If we come up with a negative "limited confidence" or
"no confidence" judgment, we report the outcome to HEFCE
and it is up to them then to decide whether or not to exercise
any sanctions upon the institution. I should say that, before
that happens, with one of those negative judgments there is an
action plan that has to be produced by the institution. That is
monitored by us and ultimately signed off by us.
Q6 Mr Boswell: That would not be
different conceptually from the kind of action plan driven by
an Ofsted inspection in relation to further education provision
or, indeed, in schools. It is the same sort of approach: something
is wrong, we need to think about what we should do and, ultimately,
there is a sanction.
Mr Williams: Yes.
Dr Jackson: In principle that
is right. The action plans contain details about how the institutions
will respond to recommendations in the report. We identify in
the report the issues that need to be addressed, then we expect
the action plan to say how those issues are addressed and the
time scale in which they would be implemented.
Q7 Chairman: Peter, it assumes that
the discussions you have are with the vice-chancellors and senior
academics within university institutions. What happens when a
whistleblower comes along and says that something unacceptable
is happening within a university department? Can they come to
you? Do they come to you? What do you do about it? Or do you simply
brush it under the carpet?
Mr Williams: No. I think the first
thing to say is that we do not just talk to vice-chancellors and
senior staff. At our auditsand Stephen could describe those
better if you wishwe talk to people at all levels in the
institutions, including students. Students are invited to write
their own statement to us about what they are getting. In the
case of whistleblowers, when the new framework for quality assurance
was devised in 2002 it left a gap. That gap was precisely the
whistleblowing gap. We did these audits. We did them once every
three years and the agreement was that we would move to once every
six years. The question I posed was: What do we do in the meantime
if something goes wrong? In order to fill that gap, we have developed
a process called "causes for concern". That process
allows whistleblowers to tell us, provided they have evidenceand
we are not prepared to accept complaints without evidence, because
there are a lot of reasons why people might want to be difficult,
shall we say
Q8 Chairman: It is the same with
Mr Williams: This is a graded
process, a proportional response process, whereby people can come
to us and we look at the evidence. When we think there is something
in the evidence that is worth pursuing, we will discuss it, in
the first instance, with the head of the institution concerned.
If we are not satisfied with the response to that, we will then
escalate it until we get a full new audit. That will then be subject
to review, which will be published and the outcomes will be publicly
Q9 Chairman: Has that ever happened?
Dr Jackson: In one case.
Mr Williams: The process only
came in last year. We only introduced it last year. The individual
case was a college of further education, over its higher education
awards. There was a negative Ofsted inspection report, where the
funding council was concerned about the quality of standards and
HE provision and asked us to use this procedure in order to provide
assurance that the students and HE programmes were being properly
Q10 Chairman: If a student wrote
to me about the quality of the masters course provision, saying
it was so poor, and another student wrote to me to say that he
had been awarded a third class honours degree when he should not
have got anything because he was so appalling, if they wrote to
you what would you do about it? That is what I have advised them
Dr Jackson: We would not do anything.
In the first case student complaints are handled by the adjudicators.
Q11 Chairman: We have been through
that route. It has not worked.
Dr Jackson: If students or other
members of staff in an institution were able to provide us with
evidence of serious concerns, then that would trigger the "cause
for concern" process.
Q12 Mr Boswell: I want to come back
to the second part of my question: the academic sanction as opposed
Mr Williams: This is whether degree-awarding
powers can be withdrawn. There is a distinction to be drawn between
non publicly-funded institutions and publicly-funded institutions.
The criteria for awarding powers are the Government's not QAA's
but we use those criteria when assessing institutions for whether
or not they should get powers. The publicly-funded institutions
are all subscribers to QAA, therefore they will submit to audit.
Q13 Mr Boswell: So far as I know,
the Privy Council, which is the body responsible for ultimately
awarding the powers, has never withdrawn powers. But it would
be open to you, if you were concerned, either in conjunction with
ministers or maybe on your own recognisance, to write to the Privy
Council to say that the situation is so bad that
Mr Williams: We could, in theory,
although I think that would be going along quite a long road of
inquiry. When it comes to the privately funded, they are also
required to be subscribers to QAA. Those powers are granted on
a six-year renewal basis. At the end of six years, they come up
for review anyway.
Q14 Mr Boswell: That is a licence.
Mr Williams: That is a kind of
licence. There is an interest in deciding whether or not after
six years they should become permanent in the same way as everybody
else, so as not to distinguish, unnaturally, in a sense, between
publicly-funded and non publicly-funded. I am not aware that in
public debate there has been any serious canvassing of the suggestion
that anybody's powers, be it Oxford or some privately-funded institution,
should be converted into a licenceI suppose anticipating
there might be some concerns about academic freedom if that were
to happen. It is not the British way; it is the Continental way
but it is not the way we have done it here.
Q15 Mr Boswell: It is similar. I
have one final question about Bologna. Given that we now have
the Bologna Process which is designed to provide comparability,
are there any concerns about Bologna. If there is an unsatisfactory
situation would you report that to anybody? If so, who would take
Mr Williams: All the requirements
of Bologna are already incorporated within our inspections and
institutions. If something is deficient in Bologna, it would be
deficient at home as well. We would probably see it first as home-deficient
rather than Bologna-deficient.
Q16 Mr Boswell: A director of a university
who had maybe exchange students with a British university would
not normally get engaged with anybody else. If necessary he would
write to QAA and say, "We are having trouble with our postgraduates."
Mr Williams: That is right.
Q17 Mr Wilson: You have been pretty
clear about the judgments you have; that is "no confidence"
and "limited confidence". You were formed in 1997. In
those 11 years, with how many institutions have you used those
powers so far?
Mr Williams: A round of audits
started between 2002 and 2006, when all the English institutions
were audited. There were six judgments of "limited confidence"
and one judgment of "no confidence".
Q18 Mr Wilson: In those four years,
how many would have "no confidence" at the moment?
Mr Williams: One we had no confidence
Q19 Mr Wilson: How many have limited
confidence at this moment?
Mr Williams: I think I am right
in saying that all the "limited confidence" and the
"no confidence" from the last round of audit have now
done their action plan to our satisfaction and are now back in
Mr Wilson: Are there some institutions
that you think should have a more rigorous inspection, because
they show signs of being more of a worry?
Mr Boswell: Risk based.
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