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

Memorandum 103

Letter dated 3 March from Mr Peter Williams, Chief Executive, Quality Assurance Agency, to Mr Phil Willis MP, Chairman of the Committee

  When I wrote to you on 30 October last year, I informed you about the project that QAA is undertaking in response to last summer's media stories concerning quality and standards in higher education, which I discussed with you and your colleagues in July. I mentioned that we were analysing these stories in depth and were also undertaking enquiries into the five specific areas mentioned in the reports:

    — student workload and contact hours;

    — language requirements for the acceptance of international;

    — students recruitment practices for international students;

    — use of external examiners; and

    — assessment practices.

  I promised to keep you up to date on our progress. In the three and a half months since I last wrote to you we have been undertaking assessments and analyses of the matters raised last year and, specifically, the five areas listed above.

  Our enquiries are drawing on and analysing the following sources of evidence:

    — published and unpublished reports, papers, lectures and speeches;

    — press and media broadcasts, articles, and comments from readers;

    — notes of interviews with representatives of key bodies; and

    — notes of focus group discussions with senior academic managers, students, programme leaders and heads of department.

  The enquiries are accumulating material and information to allow us to establish an evidence base to inform the clear identification of prima facie cases where there are, and are not, areas of concern. The evidence will also be used to identify any areas that need to be addressed in order to safeguard the quality and standards of English higher education and will enable us to produce an evidence-based response to perceived concerns.

  Following agreement with HEFCE in December about finance for the project, progress has gone according to plan. We have now completed the analysis of media articles and commentaries and carried out all the planned interviews with stakeholders; the focus groups are currently in train. This collation of material and analysis of new findings will provide an indication of whether areas of real concern exist and, if so, what the nature and extent of such concerns may be. A preliminary report on this work will be available during the second week of March and we shall, of course, send you a copy of it. These interim findings will be used to identify where additional evidence or information-gathering is needed. This further work will inform the identification of any new actions (whether remedial or preventative) required to address such concerns, should they exist.

  We expect our final report, with our findings and any proposals for further action, to be completed soon after Easter. Again, we shall let you have a copy as soon as it is completed.

  Although we have not yet reached the point of being able to offer conclusions to our enquiries, you may nonetheless be interested in some general points that have emerged from the analysis of media articles and commentaries. These show that a relatively small number of original sources of comment and opinion generated a large volume of secondary comment, reporting and response that in some cases relied solely on those original sources (and mostly took them at face value) and that in others added observations and claims said to be from the author's immediate personal experience; these may, or may not, indicate concerns that are reflected more widely.

  We have also found what appears to be a pattern of `interconnectedness', wherein media comments and articles link a range of matters that get carried forward together in discussions, but which only rarely question whether the matters are really connected. An example of this is the frequency with which references to international students appear in articles dealing with matters such as contact time; assessment; the standards of academic awards, academic malpractice; admission to higher education institutions; tuition fees; student support; and conflicts between teaching staff and managers.

  A further point worth reporting is that there are many criticisms by commentators and respondents of individual institutions' external examining arrangements. Articles and responses then frequently go on to generalise about "the external examining system" on the unstated assumption that all external examining arrangements are identical and therefore share the same weaknesses. That there are some weaknesses in the external examining and assessment arrangements of individual institutions is confirmed by our own audits and reviews, but that does not yet amount to a finding of sector-wide weaknesses, other than in the area of assessment and, specifically, degree classification. We are also continuing to examine the collated information for concerns about the work of individual external examiners and their integrity. So far, we have found relatively few instances of critical comment.

  A final point to note, highlighting again the problem of generalisation about higher education, is that the implications, for the student experience, of institutions working to different missions do not appear to be recognised or accepted; many commentators appear to assume that institutions of differing size, mission, background and student profile should have identical outcomes.

  Our analysis is continuing. In the meantime I hope this account of our progress is helpful to your Committee and look forward to meeting you and your colleagues again on 9 March.

March 2009

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