In October 2014, the Higher Education Funding Council (HEFC) began a consultation process that as the first stage of its strategy to invite bids from organisations to take over the role of the quality assurance inspectorate for universities in England.
This step is set to coincide with the government plans to remove the limits on student numbers. It is perhaps not surprising to find that the current watchdog, the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) argue that such a change is not necessary as, in their view, the current system is perfectly adequate and robust. One has to question whether this is really the case in practice.
Challenges to the current inspectorate system
The HEFC states that it needs to improve the current inspectorate system as a result of “more consumer pressure from students paying higher tuition fees and an increasing number of private providers needing to be overseen“. However, this statement does not fully explain the challenges that exist in the structure and practical challenges that exist in the quality assurance programmes and procedures. As is suggested by the term inspectorate, a key element of this process is for the watchdog to carry out inspections of public and private universities as part of their objective to ensure that educational standards are being maintained. In addition to inspection precipitated by specific concerns identified as occurring in a particular institution, random inspections are also required to ensure the quality of education throughout the sector as a whole. In both cases, while notice of the inspection should be given to the institution, the length of notice should be limited.
Ofsted, the school inspectorate, which is responsible for a far greater number of educational institutions than the QAA, give as little as one day’s notice. In contrast, according to a report by the BBC, the QAA “can warn universities of a review several years in advance“. Perhaps it is not surprising to find the universities arguing that an ‘Ofsted-style’ approach would not work in the higher education system, but is this really the case? If higher education institutions are maintaining appropriate educational standards, then there they have nothing to fear from short notice of a review/inspection being given as the quality of their policies and procedures will pass scrutiny. If they are not, then lengthy notice periods not only mean that the faults in their educational standards will continue for longer periods, and thus increase the adverse impact on student learning, but also it provides a greater opportunity to ‘paper over the cracks’.
Complying with the need for quality educational standards by the higher educational sector is not only important for student learning, but also the improvement of the skills and competences they require to pursue their future career. It is our view at Re&d that short review/inspection notice is critical to maintaining these standards.
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