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

Memorandum 23

Submission from the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education


1.  Introduction

  1.1  The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) was established in 1997 to provide independent assessment of how higher education institutions in the UK maintain their academic standards and quality.

1.2  The primary responsibility for academic standards and quality rests with individual institutions. QAA reviews and reports on how well they meet those responsibilities, identifies good practice and makes recommendations for improvement.

1.3  We visit institutions to conduct our audits, make judgements and publish reports, but we are not an inspectorate or a regulator and do not have statutory powers. We aim to ensure that institutions have effective processes in place to secure their academic standards, but we do not judge the standards themselves.

1.4  QAA publishes a Code of practice[49], which guides institutions to ensure students have a good learning experience and achieve a worthwhile qualification. We use the Code of practice as a reference point in our audits of institutions.

  1.5  We are also responsible for the national frameworks and mechanisms that are used by institutions to design and assure the quality of their courses and degree standards.[50] While the freedom of institutions to design and run their own courses is important, it is equally important that degrees from different institutions across the UK are broadly comparable.

  1.6  Based on the evidence available, through individual audits and thematic analysis of series of audits, QAA believes that the UK has a fundamentally sound higher education system. Institutions are committed to maintaining academic standards in ways that meet the needs of today's world, and to providing students with an experience that is worthwhile in itself and that enhances their career prospects.

  1.7  We believe that the sector's reputation is enhanced by the fact that it has an effective system of external review which can, and does, highlight areas where there may be concerns. Experience shows that most institutions respond swiftly and appropriately to our concerns.

  1.8  We have restricted this submission to those areas for which QAA has some responsibility or particular expertise, and to our work in England only.

2  Responsibilities for assuring quality

  2.1  HEFCE has a statutory responsibility to secure provision for assessing the quality of education provided in institutions for whose activities it provides, or is considering providing, financial support. To do so, it contracts annually with QAA to carry out external reviews. Academic standards are the responsibility of individual autonomous institutions, which work within an agreed Quality Assurance Framework.[51]

2.2  QAA is an independent body. Our audits are funded in part through the contract with HEFCE, and in part through subscriptions paid by higher education institutions.

  2.3  QAA also independently publishes a series of papers known as Outcomes from institutional audit. This offers a broader analysis of the themes, strengths and weaknesses that can be identified from groups of audit reports and aims to promote good practice.

  2.4  The current arrangement of responsibilities has great strengths. HEFCE delivers large sums of public money to institutions, and it is right that it should be required to seek assurance that this money is being spent on providing high quality education. Institutions need a way of demonstrating that their autonomy is meeting national expectations. QAA has the expertise to provide that assurance and to raise concerns and recommend action where necessary.[52]

3  Admissions

  3.1  Section 10 of QAA's Code of practice supports institutions in developing effective admission policies. The evidence from audit reports shows that generally this is being implemented effectively by institutions.[53] The reports identify strengths in outreach activity, the use of management information systems to monitor recruitment and admissions, and the care with which procedures are carried out.

3.2  Our audit reports show that, increasingly, institutions are developing better ways of improving access and widening participation. To a large extent this means that they are satisfying the intention of the Code of practice; that procedures used to attract, recruit and admit students should be clear, fair, explicit and applied consistently.

  3.4  We have seen notable features of good practice, ranging from engagement in local community activities and involvement in partnerships at a regional level, to the development of links with local employers and targeted support for particular groups of students. Successful strategies for retaining students form an integral part of many widening participation initiatives.

Widening participation through Access to HE[54]

  3.4  As well as promoting good practice, QAA manages the recognition of Access to HE courses, through which students with few, if any, qualifications can be prepared for higher education. These are successful in facilitating access and helping the sector widen participation.

3.5  In 2007, 4.5 per cent of all applicants accepted for places through UCAS were students with an access qualification; a total of 14,590.

  3.6  The majority of Access to HE students are aged 19-30. Analysis[55] shows that while, in general, students from more privileged backgrounds are more likely to enter higher education, those with an access qualification are more likely to be from a deprived background. UCAS data shows that 46.7 per cent of English access applicants came from the most deprived areas (by index of multiple deprivation) compared with 23.8 per cent of other applicants.

  3.7  UCAS also reports that a higher proportion of applicants from access courses (31.5 per cent) were non-white than applicants in general (21.7 per cent). The proportion of Black applicants was nearly three times higher among access applicants than among non-access applicants.

4  Teaching and research

  4.1  One of the greatest strengths of UK higher education is its diversity, with institutions tailoring their methods of teaching and learning to their different objectives and strengths.

4.2  Since 2002, QAA has conducted 187 institutional audits. Until 2005, five judgements of limited confidence were made and one of no confidence.

Since then, we have made one judgement of limited confidence in the quality of learning opportunities, and three of limited confidence in standards.[56] In all cases the institutions made the necessary improvements in the expected timescale.

  4.3  Audit reports show that strategies to improve the quality of teaching often centre on the provision of comprehensive staff development programmes. They might offer certified teaching and learning programmes for new staff, many accredited by the Higher Education Academy; a wide breadth of development opportunities for other staff; and programmes of peer review for developing teaching excellence.[57]

  4.4  There is, however, greater variability in development opportunities for part-time and visiting staff. A number of reports have also noted that training for postgraduate research students with teaching responsibilities is not always thorough.

  4.5  Students' learning experiences are, however, shaped not only by the quality of their teaching. As well as commending levels of academic guidance, our audit reports have commended student support (including pastoral support), links with industry and with other professional bodies, and opportunities for student engagement with quality assurance systems in their institutions.

5  Degree classification

  5.1  A reliable and consistent way of describing students' achievements is crucial to all in the higher education community and beyond. QAA has argued that the current system of degree classification no longer provides this.[58] We support the Burgess Group recommendations on the replacement of the current system with the Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR).

5.2  However, it would be a serious mistake to confuse a flawed classification system with falling academic standards. Irrespective of the classification system, QAA is confident that a graduating student with a UK degree will always have achieved at least a basic and appropriate academic standard.

  5.3  This confidence derives from the fact that there are nationally agreed expectations about the generic standards of academic awards (eg honours degrees). These are set out in The framework for higher education qualifications in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (FHEQ),[59] and must be met by institutions before qualifications are awarded. QAA's audits include a check on this.

  5.4  Nonetheless, increases in the numbers of students achieving firsts and upper seconds have led to allegations of "degree inflation", and have contributed to an undermining of confidence in the degree classification system.

  5.5  One explanation for this phenomenon is that as teaching and learning methods increasingly focus on supporting students to achieve the intended learning outcomes of their course, so methods of assessment have also changed. Institutions publish the assessment criteria necessary for achieving particular standards and students arrange their learning in ways that will enable them to meet those criteria.[60]

  5.6  At the same time assessment has moved away from a "norm referenced" approach whereby students were assessed in comparison with their peers of the same year, with a certain proportion achieving the higher grades, towards a system whereby all students meeting the criteria for a high grade are awarded that grade.

  5.7  In order to maintain confidence in the value of degrees, QAA has taken steps to ensure that there is a clearer mechanism through which individuals and organisations are able to alert QAA when they feel that academic standards are being jeopardised.[61] The scheme, known as "Causes for Concern", has been widely publicised. QAA publishes the outcomes of any cases that progress to a full enquiry.

The effectiveness of QAA in monitoring degree standards

  5.8  In the UK, degrees are legally "owned" by individual institutions, which are the awarding bodies responsible for academic standards. QAA does not control or directly monitor the standards of individual degrees, but it does check the ways in which institutions discharge their responsibilities for maintaining standards.

5.9  Within this framework, QAA's audit processes show that confidence can be placed in institutions' stewardship of academic standards. Our audits pay close attention to this area, and our Code of practice covers assessment (section 6), external examining (section 4), and programme approval, monitoring and review (section 7).

  5.10  We are also responsible for the national frameworks and reference points that are used by institutions to design and assure the quality of their courses and the standards of their degrees.

  5.11  These include the FHEQ, which describes the nationally agreed levels of achievement represented by higher education qualifications. It is important to distinguish between these national reference points and the specifics of individual institutions' grading systems.

  5.12  We publish subject benchmark statements,[62] which set out expectations about standards of degrees in particular subjects and are used by programme leaders to help them design their courses. QAA has also produced guidelines to help those preparing programme specifications,[63] which are public statements of what students can expect to experience and gain from a particular course at a given institution.

  5.13  QAA's audits start from the principle that institutions are individually responsible for the academic standards of the degrees they award.

  As part of our audits, we check to ensure that students are provided with clear assessment criteria, that the process is transparent, and that assessment boards operate fairly and do not put academic standards at risk.

  5.14  Almost all audit reports show that there can be confidence in the measures institutions take to safeguard the academic standards of their awards.

  5.15  These measures include the implementation of consistent assessment policies and criteria, the provision of feedback to students, and the use of external examiners.

  5.16  However, the majority of audits carried out between 2004 and 2006 included recommendations linked to aspects of assessment practice.[64] Specifically, several made reference to the practices of assessment boards, with a few raising concerns about the equity of treatment of students.

  5.17  Our reports also highlight challenges in the arrangements for joint and combined honours students.[65] For these students, it is particularly important that they are provided with clear and timely information and with high levels of academic and personal support. In a few audit reports, it has been noted that classification rules could make it less likely that students on joint and combined honours are able to achieve a first class award.

  5.18  We believe that QAA is monitoring effectively whether individual universities are maintaining the standards of the degrees they award, bearing in mind the freedom of action implied by institutional autonomy.

The relationship between degree classification and portability

  5.19  UK higher education deservedly enjoys a very good reputation internationally. QAA has helped to ensure that UK academic standards are recognised in Europe and around the world.

5.20  As part of the Bologna Process, which is working towards a common framework for higher education across Europe, QAA is now completing the process of verifying that the FHEQ is compatible with the Framework for Qualifications of the European Higher Education Area.[66]

  5.21  This will assist with student (and labour) mobility around Europe to the extent that UK degrees will be recognised more readily as part of the same framework as degrees from elsewhere in Europe.

  5.22  However, in the longer term, the portability of UK higher education awards will depend on the availability of transparent information about students' achievements (preferably through the HEAR and the compatible European Diploma Supplement[67]) and course content (through programme specifications).

6  Student support and engagement

  6.1  QAA is committed to engaging with students, and we do so in a number of ways.

6.2  In 2007 we appointed our first student Board member. Students will soon be included as full members of our audit teams; we shall be consulting students on the development of a new method of audit to replace the current process; and we are keen to help students participate in quality assurance in their institutions. We have reported on students' participation in institutions' own internal reviews,[68] and our audit process invites written submissions from students.

  6.3  In spring 2008 we undertook a pilot project involving student observers on six audit teams. The pilot showed that students felt comfortable and confident with the process, and that they could participate effectively as full members of the team. They emphasised that they should not focus on "student issues", but should add a student perspective to the whole process.[69]

  6.4  Auditors also commented favourably on the pilot, while recognising that student auditors would change the nature of "peer review" as it currently operates.

  6.5  A consultation is currently underway on the final proposals and taking into account the need for full training, we hope to have students as full members of audit teams by early 2010.

  6.6  QAA works closely with the National Union of Students on joint events to support student representation and to help students understand the process of audit. Feedback received from these events is very positive.

Non-completion by students

  6.7  Not all students successfully complete their courses. But no student should fail to complete because of inadequate teaching or the lack of academic or personal support.

6.8  QAA's audits look at the level of support provided to different groups of students.[70] Reports from 2004-06 show an increasing amount of activity focused on supporting students from backgrounds currently under-represented in higher education.

  6.9  There is no evidence that this is at the expense of supporting other groups of students, but institutions with a strong commitment to widening participation and with a consequently diverse student body face particular challenges in retaining students.

  6.10  Some institutions have developed separate student retention strategies, and many have been identified by audit as examples of good practice. For example, a project may refer students to specialist staff for counselling, mathematics support or essay-writing skills; others recognise the special significance of a student's first year, and continue to provide support for Access to HE students through the student recruitment office during this time. In one case, a university monitored non-attendance, and targeted support through a caseworker to those students deemed most likely to withdraw.

  6.11  Careers guidance is also an important element of support and retention. Our Code of practice encourages institutions to show students how the skills and knowledge they gain during their studies will help them in their future careers. Careers guidance is most effective when it is provided in close collaboration with employers and takes account of developments in the world of work.

  6.12  In addition to preparing students for employment, it is expected that careers advice of this sort will demonstrate the worth of completing their studies. The Code of practice also encourages institutions to cater for the special needs of students who may be disadvantaged in the labour market.

  6.13  QAA will publish revised guidelines on Personal Development Planning (PDP) in early 2009. PDP helps make the outcomes of learning more explicit. When students are clear about what is expected of them and what they, in turn, might expect of higher education, the quality of learning improves. The process can strengthen students' capacity to reflect upon their own learning and achievement and to plan for their own personal, educational and career development.


  7.1  UK higher education has good quality assurance processes in place, and there can be public confidence in the structures and systems that institutions use to maintain academic standards and deliver a high quality learning experience for their students. This has been achieved in the context of ever-rising student numbers, an increasing diversity in the student population and limited resources.

7.2  QAA externally verifies and reports on institutions' performance in assuring their quality and standards. When we identify areas of concern, we recommend action. Institutions take our recommendations seriously and make the necessary improvements swiftly. More broadly, QAA identifies developments in HE that might impact upon quality and standards and alerts institutions to these.

  7.3  Institutions are committed to upholding the standards of the degrees they award. We are confident that a person who has a degree from a UK university has achieved an appropriate academic standard.

  7.4  On degree classifications, however, QAA believes that the system currently in place does not provide the required level of information about achievement for students or employers and we welcome the work of the Burgess Group and the HEAR initiative.

January 2009

49   Code of practice for the assurance of academic quality and standards in higher education is available at: Back

50   See Back

51   The Quality Assurance Framework is agreed by HEFCE, Universities UK, GuildHE and QAA Back

52   See QAA's self-evaluation report for the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA), and ENQA's review of QAA: attached, and Back

53   Outcomes from institutional audit: Recruitment and admission of students, Second series: Back

54   Access to HE is a registered trademark Back

55   Key statistics 2008 is available at: Back

56   During 2005-2007 there were also 30 separate audits of collaborative provision, which returned two judgements of limited confidence Back

57   Outcomes from institutional audit: staff support and development arrangements, Second series: Back

58   Quality matters; April 2007: The classification of degree awards: Back

59   See Back

60   Outcomes from institutional audit Series 1 overview, paragraphs 47-52: Back

61   See Back

62   See Back

63   Guidelines for preparing programme specifications (2006): Back

64   Outcomes from institutional audit: Assessment of students, Second series: Back

65   Outcomes from institutional audit: Arrangements for joint, combined and multidisciplinary programmes, Second series: Back

66   Report of the FHEQ self-certification advisory group, November 2008 Back

67   See Back

68   Student membership of audit and review teams: learning from periodic review: Back

69   Student membership of audit and review teams: feedback from student observers and team members (2008): Back

70   Outcomes from institutional audit: institutions' arrangements to support widening participation and access to higher education, Second series: Back

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