Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 1-19)


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 are about.

  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 body—and perhaps we will return to whether you should be later—you 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[1] 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 aware—but perhaps it would be helpful if you could confirm for the Committee—that 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 wrong—and I am not talking about some historic case, I am talking about a hypothetical case—this should not in such circumstances be withdrawal of degree awarding powers or even, ultimately, a university?

  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 audits—and Stephen could describe those better if you wish—we 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 evidence—and 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 politicians.

  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 seen.

  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 looked after.

  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 to do.

  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 to financial.

  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 licence—I 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 an interest?

  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 in.

  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 good standing.

  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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