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

Memorandum 52

Submission from the Executive Committee of the Quality Strategy Network


  1.  In summary, this submission argues that:

    — The methodologies used by UK HEIs to determine degree classifications are consistent and appropriate, and that these are well monitored by QAA— The degree classification system remains the best available means of summarising student achievement

    — Degree classification is a good indication of portability, when supported by the Higher Education Achievement Record (HEAR)

    — Plagiarism is well understood by HEIs, which have developed sophisticated means of combating this.


  2.  The Quality Strategy Network is the membership body for senior quality managers within UK HE. This submission has been prepared by the QSN Executive Committee on behalf of the Network.

3.  Given the particular experience and expertise of network members, we have confined ourselves to commenting on the questions relating to academic standards, which come under the heading "degree classification".


  4.  The UK HE system is very diverse. It is essential that this diversity should be maintained if the sector is to meet the challenges of an unprecedented participation rate. Individual institutions within the UK sector have different missions, enabling the sector to offer a broad subject coverage and encourage participation from students from a wide range of backgrounds. A homogenous system would not be able to deliver this range of educational opportunities. Given this diversity, it is essential that there should be one agreed and coherent national QA[163] system, within the parameters of which all providers of HE operate; it is noteworthy that this is the situation which currently prevails.

5.  Even within institutions there may be a wide variety of objectives and targets; and some of these may even be contradictory (see HEFCE's submission to the Denham review of HE). There is no objective measure of the "best" institution; success cannot be measured in simplistic terms, such as measures of financial performance or student achievement, but can only be assessed in relation to the specific mission.

  6.  This diversity is essential if we are to deliver the wide range of graduates which the future of our country needs (see HEFCE Strategic Plan). Hence the most successful graduates from business-facing universities, Million + or the specialist sector may have a very different skillset from the "top" graduates from the Russell Group. This does not mean that all are not equally worthy of First Class Honours when judged against the criteria set out for their particular award.


  7.  While it is essential that individual degree-awarding institutions should exercise their autonomy in determining the detailed criteria for the award of degrees, they do so within a well-established framework provided by elements of the Academic Infrastructure, the development of which has been one of the major achievements of the QAA. This infrastructure includes the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications and the Scottish Credit & Qualifications Framework, which set out general criteria for the award of qualifications from sub-degree to doctorate level; Subject Benchmarks, which recommend core subject content for awards in particular disciplines; and the Code of Practice, which details best practice in a range of aspects of institutional management, from the appointment of external examiners (who represent the longest established cornerstone of the system for externally assuring standards, see paragraphs 20ff below) to the admission of students. In addition, there has been a successful emphasis on the provision of accurate information to students, for example programme information and comparative information, such as the National Student Survey (NSS), and quantitative data provided through Unistats.

8.  An increasing range of awards are also subject to the scrutiny and requirements of a professional body. There are presently some 900 accrediting bodies on record in the UK, which exercise considerable influence on both curriculum content and standards. To give just one example: any institution which wishes to award professional degrees in Social Work must have those awards examined by the General Social Care Council. Such scrutiny not only provides objective external input into the development and review of degree courses, but also helps to ensure an element of consistency across the sector. Institutions have developed systems to deal successfully with the complexity of integrating these professional requirements with the common HE standards and their own missions. Any attempt to implement a centralised approach would have implementation costs out of proportion to its value, and would be likely to lead to major issues with professional accrediting bodies.


  9.  We are not aware of any evidence that degree standards are inappropriate, or that standards are any less secure than at any time in the past.

10.  We have a mature quality assurance system in the UK. It has been developed systematically over the last two decades, and is now well-understood and well-established. A rolling programme of Audits, Continuation Audits, Subject Reviews and now Institutional Audits, alongside Enhancement-Led Institutional Review (ELIR) in Scotland and Institutional Review in Wales, has consistently given the sector a clean bill of health, with only a fraction of disciplines or institutions found to be unsatisfactory. These processes have taken place alongside HEFCE Assurance Audits, and reviews conducted by bodies such as the Higher Education Regulation Review Group (HERRG), which sought to reduce the administrative burden on institutions. There may be further scope for improvement, but the principles are now well accepted. The individual decisions of autonomous institutions are not reviewed, but the full process of decision-making is considered, to ensure that it is fit for purpose.

  11.  This maturity supports the increasing focus on the enhancement of student learning opportunities, and the promotion of student engagement, which are the current priority for all institutions. This is not simply a matter of listening to student feedback and acting upon it, although that is standard practice in all institutions with which we are familiar. It is about how we engage students fully as participants in more aspects of institutional life and decision-making. At the same time, there is a focus on the student experience: how we ensure that time spent within HE is both rich, and valuable and relevant to subsequent employment and personal development. Discussions about "quality enhancement", and how best it can be delivered, have been the central focus of the two most recent QSN annual conferences, each attended by around 100 senior quality managers from across the UK HE sector.

  12.  Peer review is an essential aspect of the national QA system; indeed given the complexity of the HE sector, the variety of institutions and the competing internal objectives, it is difficult to see who the expert reviewers might be, if not current (or very recent) professionals within the system. We have all seen the few alarmist reports—given undue weight perhaps by the THE letters page—which suggest that nameless, faceless bureaucrats require the completion of ever-increasing mountains of paperwork, usually involving the meaningless ticking of boxes. This is not a system we recognise, nor one in which we work. Indeed QSN perceives a trend towards internal processes which are more efficient and add value, and the Network is active in promoting these.

  13.  QAA recruits, and trains, established and experienced members of staff from within HEIs to perform the audit function, and they are well aware of the challenges faced by institutions, for example in identifying, implementing, and measuring the success of enhancement initiatives. Nevertheless, where an institution is found to be lacking, either in terms of academic standards, or in the delivery of high quality education; or in its processes to assure these, a judgement of less than full confidence is delivered. Our members have wide experience of this system in practice; based on that experience, we believe it to be a sound system which delivers reliable judgements. Indeed we are concerned that any other process—for example one which included more tick-boxes—would lead to universities from which creativity and risk-taking, as well as frank debate, were eliminated. The dynamism of the sector would thereby be compromised; and the sector, and above all its students, would be the poorer for this.

  14.  QAA has taken many years to reach its current position, which provides assurance of, and public information about, the standards and quality of provision across the HE sector. It does this without infringing upon the core concept of the autonomous institution. We fully accept the importance of making information about the outcomes of QA processes available within the public domain. We do retain some misgivings about the value of this information, as currently published, to non-expert users, who are not well placed to interpret the differences which may be perceived, and we welcome the initiatives which are currently underway, for example via the work of UCAS through the Unistats website, to provide information in a form more accessible to those outside the sector, such as students, prospective students, parents and employers.

  15.  We note that the UK's approach to quality assurance has had a significant influence on developments elsewhere, including across Europe through the Bologna Process and in jurisdictions such as Malaysia and Saudi Arabia. We also note the recent confirmation by the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA) of QAA compliance with agreed European standards. This is an indication of the esteem in which the system is held.


  16.  We are of course aware of the debates about academic standards, and the assertion that these have fallen over recent decades.

17.  We acknowledge the proportions of students achieving higher classifications of degree (First and Upper Second Class Honours), and understand public surprise that this proportion has risen given the massification of HE. However, we note a number of points which may have impacted on this:

    (i) The onus on widening participation has enabled a previously untapped pool of talented students to enter HE who would not have done so hitherto.

    (ii) The range of subjects available has greatly increased. This has drawn in a range of professionals whose skills were not previously acknowledged to be at degree level, but whose competence was not in doubt. Hence the comparison over time does not compare like with like.

    (iii) This range of subjects has also increased the range of skills and competences which are expected. For example, students may be assessed on their achievement of practical outcomes (such as through work placement), rather than on scholarly essays or extended dissertations.

    (iv) Institutions are much more explicit about the learning outcomes which are to be demonstrated, and the assessment criteria to be applied. Even 20 years ago, this was almost unknown. Hence students are clearer about what they need to do in each piece of assessed work, and can target their efforts accordingly.

    (v) Institutions often use a range of assessment methods. Hence whilst previously an ability to succeed in written examinations, based on the academic essay, was of paramount importance, students may now achieve well by being strong in coursework, presentations, and so on. Many of the skills and abilities tested in this way are of equal relevance to a student's future contribution in employment than were the narrower range of skills tested by more traditional methods.

  18.  Hence we question the assertion that standards have fallen over time, as the respective systems are so different that they are not susceptible to such a simplistic comparison.

  19.  Institutions have internal mechanisms to ensure the standardisation of marks in relation to the national expectations of degree-level study. These may include some or all of double marking; moderation; the use of generic grading descriptors to articulate the expectations at each class of award; and comprehensive validation and periodic review processes, drawing on views from colleagues external to the institution, to ensure that each course has outcomes which are appropriate to a degree in this subject.

  20.  This internal decision-making about student performance is validated by the external examiner. External examiners bring professional experience and objectivity to bear, and have a key role in confirming that the marks and grades awarded are appropriate, consistent across institutions within the sector and over time, and in accordance with the regulations. No work will be outside the remit of at least one external, and we are not aware of any evidence that the system does not work well. We do not believe that there is a cadre of expert professionals available to do this work other than those currently serving as external examiners, and the commitment which senior academics demonstrate in acting as external examiners (for limited reward) shows the seriousness with which this role is taken.

  21.  QAA auditors do not interview external examiners. However, they have access to their reports; and can review the criteria for the appointment of externals; can check any institutional training or induction; can read any guidelines or procedural notes; and can check how an institution has responded to any or all annual reports. Failure to engage appropriately with external examiners would almost certainly lead to a judgement of limited confidence at Institutional Audit or equivalent.

  22.  We note that there was a QAA proposal in 1998, to develop a national Register of External Examiners (in response to the 1997 Dearing Report), and that this suggestion has recently been resurrected by Professor Roger Brown, now of Liverpool Hope University. We fail to see the benefits of this proposal. On a basic level, its administration would create a significant bureaucratic burden, and we do not believe that a single central body would be effective in keeping such a major database updated. More significantly, institutions take great care in selecting examiners with the specific knowledge necessary for their own programmes, which assures subject alignment. The use of an extended network of contacts to identify potential examiners ensures that the available "pool" of examiners is regularly extended through the appointment of those who have not previously examined, but who are recommended by colleagues and subsequently inducted into the process. It is hard to see how a central register would be able to match the efficacy of this process, especially in new or growth areas where the number of potential examiners may be restricted.

  23.  We are aware of no evidence that institutions select external examiners who are insufficiently critical or who are too close to the institution or course team; the need for objectivity is explicit in the QAA Code of Practice, and institutional criteria for appointment will make clear that this professional relationship should be supportive, but requires a degree of distance. It should also be noted that many examiners have indicated that they would not wish to join any centrally held Register. Their engagement as fellow academics, operating a critical standards safeguard, is based on their commitment to the educational and subject community, but they have reservations about inclusion as part of a national database.


  24.  The portability of a degree will relate primarily to its holder, and his/her professional skills, rather than the subject itself. In a society which is heavily service-industry based, the ability to conduct research in a critical and analytical manner, to solve complex problems, and to present complex information in different ways to a range of audiences, are of critical importance. Degree classification is determined both by the dedicated subject knowledge which is demonstrated, but also by the application of professional or graduate skills (time management; marshalling of arguments; problem-solving; teamwork; communication and so forth) to this knowledge.


  25.  The value of the classification system is that it gives a quick and easy reference point for students, employers and other stakeholders. The system is well established, and its outputs easily recognised. It is essential that this be supplemented through a detailed transcript and record of performance, but these will necessarily be as complicated as they are detailed.

26.  We acknowledge the weaknesses of the current classification system, and the anomaly of using such a broad brush approach to summarising the achievement and attributes of students, and we await with interest the pilot of the proposed HEAR. However, as was evident in the sector's response to the Burgess Report, there is little support for any of the possible alternative systems which were discussed; and an acknowledgement that, if universities do not offer summary judgements of performance in some way, then employers and others will devise their own, which may be less reliable than those which the awarding institution can offer. It is unrealistic to suppose that an employer will have either the time, or the expertise, to interpret a complex document such as the HEAR for each applicant, although this will provide valuable additional information for those who are shortlisted, for example.

  27.  We note that students, at institutional level, also value the degree classification. This may in part be based on pre-existing expectations, but it would be counter-intuitive to change this system unless it is clear that the alternative offers significant advantages, such as qualitatively greater objectivity. We do not believe this to be the case with any alternative proposal at this time.


  28.  We would accept that there are many diverse methodologies for the determination of degree classification, and note that this is in part a function of institutional autonomy. Many of these methodologies are of long standing, and have been developed in response to specific institutional priorities. There are significant similarities between the majority (including the accepted grade boundaries). However there may be value to reviewing existing practice, and developing guidelines and practical advice which would secure greater consistency of approach within and between HEIs, especially around borderline cases.


  29.  We are aware of regular reports of an increase in student plagiarism, but we believe that institutions are well aware both of the issue, and of approaches to respond to it. Sector-wide groups regularly discuss issues such as plagiarism, and we are convinced that this matter cannot be resolved through interventions from outside the sector.

January 2009

163   Throughout this document, we have used "quality assurance" or "QA" to refer to the systems and processes used by institutions, and the sector more broadly, to guarantee the standards of awards, to review the quality of the student learning experience, and to plan for enhancements to that experience. Back

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