Risk to global reputation from QAA decision in England

University leaders are warning that the international reputation for the quality of higher education provision in the United Kingdom cannot be taken for granted as it remains unclear what will happen to quality assessment and assurance after the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) gives up its role as the independent quality body for England in four months’ time.

Many in the higher education sector were surprised by the announcement in July that “QAA demits DQB status” – a quaint old-English expression for resigning its current contract with the Office for Students (OfS), the higher education regulator in England, when it comes up for renewal.

A statement from the QAA said it had “notified the secretary of state for education that it will no longer consent to be the Designated Quality Body (DQB) in England after the current DQB year ends on 31 March 2023”.

A QAA spokesperson told University World News this week: “Our decision to demit our role as designated quality body in England was taken because the requirements made of us in this role by the current English regulatory system are not consistent with standard international practice, as reflected in the European Standards and Guidelines (ESG).

“QAA’s work in other nations of the UK and internationally depends on our registration on the European Quality Assurance Register (EQAR), which is based on compliance with the ESG.”

The English system does not require the QAA to publish all of its DQB reports; does not require students to be present on DQB review teams; and has no cyclical review process. All of these are requirements of EQAR registration.

International repercussions feared for TNE

Higher education experts worry that the move could have international repercussions, particularly for global perceptions of the quality assurance process in England and for transnational education (TNE) between English universities and overseas partners.

Most who were willing to talk to University World News said they were giving personal views rather than those of their institutions – an indication, perhaps, of the power and influence of the OfS over higher education institutions in England.

Dr Vangelis Tsiligiris, associate professor in international and digital business education at Nottingham Trent University in England and founder of TNE Hub, an international network of researchers and practitioners, said the QAA’s reputation “goes hand in hand with the international reputation of the entire UK higher education sector”.

He told University World News: “It is very worrying that QAA has decided not to continue as the designated quality body for England because of the non-compliance of the national QA [quality assurance] practices with the European standards and guidelines and this will have an impact on the international perception of TNE quality assurance processes in England.

“QAA has been used by other countries as an exemplar national quality assurance agency and it has influenced [the] shaping [of] QA process across the world.

“National quality assurance agencies and governments in transnational education host countries relied on the work of QAA to mitigate quality risks and while the emphasis of OfS in measuring the outputs and experience of TNE students is a positive development, there are already concerns about how, and by whom, these will be measured in the increasingly complex transnational education environment.”

Tsiligiris said a good understanding of “contextual factors in an international setting” was vital to avoid misinterpreting the data. He told University World News: “OfS would need a reliable and above all knowledgeable partner [and] to the best of my knowledge, there is no better candidate than QAA.”

View from Dubai: ‘Challenging decision’

An active participant in the TNE community from Dubai, who preferred not to be named, told University World News QAA has been one of the leaders in quality assurance of TNE and he has worked closely with them during two QAA visits to the United Arab Emirates.

“It will be important to understand what measures will be taken to replace the oversight that was provided by the QAA. The Dubai model, like many others, places reliance on the QA of the home country agency and in the absence of cyclical reviews in England, this is a challenge.

“The QAA also played an important role in terms of international networks and promoting collaboration between agencies. This helped promote UK higher education and the standards and quality it represents.”

QAA will continue TNE work with members

Eduardo Ramos, director of international and professional services at the QAA and former head of TNE at Universities UK International, told University World News: “QAA has developed internationally recognised expertise in assuring and enhancing quality and upholding standards in higher education over the past 25 years, including delivery through transnational education, and achieved this position through an eminently collaborative approach, both in the UK and internationally.

“At the international level, QAA is a solid and reliable partner for authorities worldwide, and an important contributor to the development of common approaches to quality and standards around the globe, including through active membership in organisations such as the International Network for Quality Assurance Agencies (INQAAHE) and the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA).

“In this sense, it’s in the interest of QAA members, and the UK transnational education sector at large, that the agency’s work remains aligned with international standards.

“The decision to demit DQB status will allow QAA to focus on delivering value through existing and new services and we will continue working with our members, with sector representative organisations and with authorities in the UK and internationally to uphold and enhance the quality of TNE delivered by our members, and to protect the reputation of the UK transnational education sector as a whole.”

OfS has set out its interim plans

The Office for Students told University World News they had set out their plans for assessing quality and standards from April 2023 in a document on their website last month.

This was accompanied by a press release, which said the “OfS will undertake a number of assessment activities that are currently delivered by the designated quality body, the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), on an interim basis from April 2023.

“In parallel, the OfS will continue to discuss longer-term arrangements with sector representative groups, keeping universities and colleges informed as these discussions progress.”

A spokesperson for the OfS said they had nothing to add to the statement, which quoted Jean Arnold, director of quality at the OfS, saying: “As we take on assessment activities previously delivered by the QAA, we will ensure that providers seeking registration and degree-awarding powers are assessed rigorously on the basis set out in our regulatory framework.”

As part of its programme of investigations on quality issues, OfS “will expand our pool of academic experts as our assessment activity increases next year” and work with the QAA to deliver its remaining assessment work and ensure “a smooth transition to the new arrangements”, said Arnold.

‘Independent QA body needed’

Dr Paul Greatrix, registrar at the University of Nottingham who blogs under the name ‘Registrarism’, told University World News he hoped ongoing discussions about identifying an alternative to the QAA as DQB are successful.

Speaking in a personal capacity, Greatrix said: “The Higher Education and Research Act, in distinguishing between the OfS and a DQB, clearly intended for there to be a separate quality assurance body.

“If we end up with the OfS absorbing the DQB role I’m not sure that this consolidation of all regulatory and quality activity in a single agency will deliver the right approach for the sector.

“Therefore, a review of the whole quality architecture would seem like a sensible step, whether or not quality assurance functions are undertaken by a new DQB or the OfS.”

A spokeperson for Universities UK, which represents UK vice-chancellors, told University World News: “Higher education providers are committed to designing and delivering high-quality courses, underpinned by robust academic standards, delivering the outcomes students want to achieve and employers recognise and trust.

“Effective regulation and external quality assurance are central to the sector’s success in this. This needs to include an independent DQB that commands the confidence of providers, students and employers. We are continuing to engage with the Department for Education and the Office for Students on these issues.”

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com.