Students and Universities - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents

Memorandum 86

Submission from Professor Roger Brown[341]



  1.  The standards and quality of student learning are complex matters which it is difficult to talk about in general terms.

  2.  Nevertheless we do not know enough about them, and this partly reflects the focus of our current quality assurance arrangements.

  3.  However, we do know that there are some significant longstanding weaknesses in UK quality assurance.

  4.  The increasing "marketisation" of the system will exacerbate these, as could increasing partnerships between universities and other organisations.

  5.  Experience in America and Britain suggests that whilst marketisation may have many benefits, it can be detrimental to quality.

  6.  If we wish to maintain the reputation and standing of UK higher education, and prevent managerial intrusion into academic judgments, there needs to be a strengthening of our national and institutional quality assurance arrangements.

The complexity of standards and quality

  7.  For the purpose of this submission, "standards" are defined as the standards of student learning achievement disclosed through assessment, "quality" as the learning opportunities that students have to obtain and demonstrate that learning. Ultimately, standards and quality can only be assessed through expert judgment in relation to the specific purposes of the programme concerned and the criteria and methods used by the assessor. Widely differing learner motivations, institutional missions, academic disciplines and modes of study are further complicating factors. In a diverse mass system there can be no single "gold standard" (and no single rank ordering of universities).

Our knowledge of quality and standards

  8.  This is not to imply that we can say or do nothing about the factors that affect student learning. But too much of our quality assurance effort is devoted to trying to make futile comparisons between different courses and institutions, and too little to assessing how these contextual factors may be affecting standards and quality, and taking the necessary remedial actions. In my book "Quality Assurance in Higher Education: The UK Experience since 1992" (Brown, 2004: 163) I quoted from a paper I wrote in 2000 for the then Standing Conference of Principals (now Guild UK):

    We have major challenges in our midst which at the very least pose challenges for quality: the expansion in student numbers; the worsening of staff-student ratios; the fall in the real unit of resource; serious and continuing under-investment in the learning infrastructure and in staff development; the increasing use of communications and information technologies; the increasing resort to untrained, unqualified and poorly motivated "teaching" staff; the increasing separation of "teaching" from "research"; increased student employment during the academic year etc. Yet hardly any of these has been seriously studied or evaluated for its impact on quality, any more indeed than the accountability regimes themselves

Longstanding weaknesses

  9.  We do know that there are a number of longstanding weaknesses in our quality assurance arrangements. The chief one is student assessment where there is a substantial and largely critical literature going back over many years. Another major area concerns partnerships with organisations outside the mainstream sector, including organisations abroad. This is particularly important given that the challenges UK universities and colleges will be facing over the next 20 years will all involve working more closely with partners inside and outside higher education. Other areas of weakness which affect student learning include our failure to achieve effective synergies between student education and staff research and the analysis, presentation and use of student feedback. Questions have also been raised about the veracity of much of the information that institutions publish about themselves and their offerings. Finally, we know from surveys by the respected Higher Education Policy Group that there are significant, even remarkable, variations between institutions in things like the amounts of scheduled teaching each week (within subject), the size of teaching groups, and access to academic staff.


  10.  However the biggest threat to standards and quality arises from the progressive marketisation of the system whereby higher education is increasingly seen as a tradeable private good rather than a non-tradeable personal process. Under marketisation, barriers to entry for providers are reduced or removed; public subsidies for teaching go to students in the form of tuition fees rather than to institutions through block grants; institutions compete vigorously for students; and students choose between institutions on the basis of information about price, quality and availability. This phenomenon is not of course confined to Britain. It is usually associated with a decrease in the amount of public financial support of higher education.

The impact of marketisation

  11.  Increased competition undoubtedly makes universities more efficient in their use of resources, more responsive to external stakeholders, and more open to change. But markets, and the associated policies for public and private expenditure, also represent a threat to quality. A continuing study of higher education markets in America, Australia, Britain and elsewhere (Brown, in preparation), suggests the following as some of the detriments to quality that can arise through marketisation:

    1. a reduction in the volume of the curriculum, a shorter academic year, less regular contact with lecturers and teachers, larger teaching groups, more students working in term time, more students living at home rather than on campus etc. This mainly reflects long term resourcing pressures (I owe to Professor Ian McNay the information that the proportion of GDP spent on higher education now is very little different from what it was in the mid-1980s when the proportion of the population going into higher education was only half what it is now). But it also reflects the greater priority given to research by both institutions and academic staff. It means above all less personal interaction between students and staff which many see as essential to the quality of student learning, and not only in higher education;

    2. a declining level of trust between students and staff. This is seen in increasing student complaints, and even misbehaviour in the form of violence, public humiliation and rudeness, as well as accusations of unfairness and lack of professionalism. This is partly about a process ("consumerisation") whereby students have moved rapidly from being seen as apprentice academics to being seen as novice consumers;

    3. increased resort to temporary and part-time lecturers and tutors, including graduate students, many of them neither properly trained nor fully committed to the institution. There is clear evidence in America that this has damaged standards;

    4. greater pressure on pass rates, increased grade inflation, increased plagiarism and other forms of cheating, facilitated by the internet;

    5. a growing tendency for educational products and processes to be valued for their "exchange" value (especially in the labour market) rather than for their "use" value (to the student) ,a phenomenon sometimes called "commodification". Hence increased enrolments in vocational and applied subjects. There is also concern about students adopting a more "instrumental" approach to their studies, focusing their efforts on what will win them marks rather than on what their tutors think will be good for them;

    6. a diversion of resources away from teaching and learning towards activities such as marketing, enrolment, student aid and administration. Whilst some of this expenditure is unavoidable, it can at best have only a small and indirect effect on student learning;

    7. finally, we should note the opinion of many academic staff that one factor that may be affecting quality is the increasing number of students who are not well prepared for degree level studies. It is not clear how far this is simply a function of expansion and how far it is a result of further changes, such as changes in the secondary school curriculum ("teaching to the test"). This cannot simply be dismissed as the uninformed opinion of academic staff but needs an urgent, thorough and independent investigation


  12.  Before considering possible responses to these issues, it should be noted that, according to surveys, levels of student satisfaction remain high; that although there are concerns about cost and value for money, Britain is still the second most attractive destination for internationally mobile students; that the long resource squeeze that began in the early 1980s has begun to be reversed; that by international standards our levels of graduation remain high; and that the private returns to a degree remain positive, although much depends on subject studied, institution attended, degree class obtained and socioeconomic background.

  13.  Nevertheless there are already some indications of competitive pressures beginning to affect institutional behaviour and academic judgments. These pressures will become even stronger if and when the present cap on tuition is lifted and/ or there is a further squeeze on public expenditure on higher education after 2011. At the same time, universities' and colleges' partnerships with other organisations inside and outside the sector and abroad will make such quality assurance even more problematic. To try to deal with these issues, and to maintain the reputation of UK higher education, a strengthened quality regime is needed. This should have five main elements:

    1. whatever the corporate status of the recipient, degree awarding powers should in future be time limited and subject to renewal;

    2. institutional audits should be replaced by a system of institutional accreditation with clear links to public funding;

    3. to maintain standards, institutions should ensure that their curriculum is periodically reviewed by academics with relevant expertise from other institutions (the external examiner system should either be replaced by or subsumed within this new system);

    4. we should be realistic about the information that can be given to students and others about the quality of provision;

    5. we need a stronger, more powerful, and more independent quality agency.

Degree awarding powers

  14.  Four private providers now have taught awarding powers. It is true that the public/ private distinction is becoming blurred. Nevertheless there is a difference between an institution which is subject to the sanction of having its public funding withdrawn and one which is not. Ideally, no provider should have its degree awarding powers granted in perpetuity. However it is unrealistic to think that any of the powers that have been conferred to date will be withdrawn. In future, though, degree awarding powers should only be granted for periods of, say, seven years at a time, subject to renewal (where the provider concerned changes ownership, that should automatically trigger a review).

Institutional accreditation

  15.  The present system of institutional audit should be replaced by a system of periodic institutional accreditation. To be able to continue to receive public funding, an institution should receive a judgement of confidence from the QAA or its successor. The accreditation process should be extended to cover governance and financial management including the interaction between resource allocation and deployment (including the deployment of teaching staff) and academic decisions. It should also scrutinise the links between staff research and student education. QAA should take over the financial and management audit functions of HEFCE; the latter could then be combined with the Student Loans Body. This would mean one agency being responsible for all the public funding going to institutions, whilst another would be responsible for monitoring and reporting on the uses made of those funds. This would be a valuable and logical streamlining. QAA could also take over the functions of OFFA and the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Student Complaints. As well as yielding useful savings this would improve the quality of regulation by creating a much clearer focus in our regulatory arrangements than we currently have.

Academic standards

  16.  The present quality regime looks essentially at the procedures for maintaining standards, not at the standards themselves. A new process at institutional level is needed whereby academics with appropriate expertise from other institutions with broadly cognate missions look periodically at all aspects of the curriculum being offered in a particular discipline or group of disciplines. These academics would report to the head of institution as to whether the purposes of the relevant academic programmes were being achieved, whether those purposes were worthwhile, and what further actions were needed. QAA would sample these reports as part of the regular accreditation process. This would provide the necessary reassurance that standards and quality were being maintained at acceptable levels. The need for external examiners, a system that is well past its sell-by date, would disappear. The abolition of degree classification and its replacement by transcripts would help.

Information about quality

  17.  There appears to be a general assumption that if only more information about quality could be provided, all would be well. Students would make better choices and therefore be better satisfied. Institutions would become more responsive and efficient. The best possible use would be made of public and private funds. Unfortunately this is a complete chimera. For reasons set out more fully elsewhere (Brown, 2007), valid and reliable information about the relative quality of programmes and awards is impossible to obtain, and even if it existed, could not be made available in a timely, accessible and economical form. Quality in higher education is an elusive concept that ultimately resides in a series of interactions between students and other actors in a variety of settings, by no means all of them in the lecture theatre, seminar room or laboratory. It is very difficult to boil all these down to a single measure of quality for each individual student, and certainly impossible to do so in advance. It is high time we abandoned the notion that there is one "best buy" for each student which we could identify if only we had sufficient information.

  18.  What can—and should—be provided by institutions is better information about things like the typical size of teaching groups, access to tutors, the amount of class contact, preferred assessment styles, return times for assignments etc. All these are important for students but they will not tell you much about the quality of the experience the student will receive, not least because so much depends upon what the student brings to the party. In any case, a strengthened quality regime would provide what is surely the essential safeguard, namely that whatever, wherever and however you study, you will have a proper opportunity to acquire a worthwhile qualification. (We also need to be much tougher on institutions that are persistently found to be providing false or misleading information about their provision).

The role of the QAA

  19.  QAA should have stronger powers, including the power to order an investigation into standards and quality at an institution even if not invited to do so. It needs a much wider remit, to cover not only the setting of standards but also the all important interactions that occur between resource allocation and deployment, marketing, and academic decisions. Above all, QAA needs greater independence both from the Government/Funding Council and from the sector. This could be acquired through obtaining a Royal Charter.


20.  With the exception of degree awarding powers, this strengthened quality regime would not require legislation. As regards costs, the present cost of external regulation is not excessive in relation to the overall amount of public and private money invested in teaching and learning (the issue is the quality of regulation rather than the quantity, with too many different bodies with overlapping, competing or confusing remits). Second, there will bound to be some offsetting savings (abandoning degree classification would be a good start). Third, even if the total cost were to be a great deal more than our present arrangements, it will be money well spent if it enables us to deal with the serious threat to quality that even the present degree of marketisation poses, never mind future challenges to quality. It is in fact a small price to pay for the continuing high standing of UK higher education.


  21.  Whilst our current quality assurance regime has many strengths it also has some major weaknesses. Marketisation is already exposing some of these; enhanced competition and partnerships with institutions and organisations outside the sector will exacerbate them. If we are to avoid further detriments to quality we must strengthen our quality assurance regime so as to ensure that academic judgments are both genuinely academic and properly professional. There is no time to lose.

January 2009


  This submission was prepared before I had sight of the recommendations of the Committee appointed by the Australian Government to review higher education. There are some striking parallels between their recommendations and mine.


  Brown, R. (2004) Quality Assurance in Higher Education: The UK Experience since 1992 London: RoutledgeFalmer

Brown, R. (2007) "The Information Fallacy"

  Brown, R. (in preparation) Higher Education and the Market: Taming the Beast

341   Professor of Higher Education Policy, Liverpool Hope University. Back

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