UK HE in China

QAA Review of Transnational Education in China.

Back in 2012 the QAA surveyed all UK higher education institutions in order to find out details of their TNE activity in China. The QAA review includes detailed reports on 10 UK universities and divides HEIs’ TNE activity into a number of different types. For the purposes of the survey, TNE was divided into the following categories:

• A: branch campus
• B: partnership
• C: distance learning through flexible and distributed learning (FDL).

Category B (partnership) was further sub-divided into:
• B1 – students in China follow a programme leading to an award from the UK institution, sometimes completing the whole programme in China, but sometimes transferring to the UK to complete parts of the programme
• B2 – students start by following a programme offered by the partner, but later transfer (under an articulation agreement) to a programme at the UK institution, but with an entitlement to advanced standing on academic grounds.
Thus, under B1 students do not change their programme, although they may change their location of study, whereas under B2 students change both their programme and their location of study.

Category C (FDL) was divided into:
• C1 – students follow a programme of the UK institution without the assistance of any support centre in China
• C2 – students follow a programme of the UK institution with the assistance of a support centre in China that is approved by the UK institution.

Campus at University of Nottingham Ningbo China

Campus at University of Nottingham Ningbo China

The report reveals that UK universities are extremely active in China:

The survey found 70 UK institutions with provision in China falling into one or more of the above categories. Collectively, these institutions reported 275 distinct relationships with 186 separate Chinese institutions. The total number of students studying in China through UK TNE was recorded by the survey as 33,874. In addition, there were 5,392 students studying in the UK, having transferred from a partner institution in China. Of the many different programmes being offered through UK TNE in China, 42 per cent are in the Business and Finance subject areas, and 19 per cent in Engineering. The survey found most of the TNE to be located geographically in the major urban centres of China’s eastern seaboard: Beijing, Shanghai, Ningbo (Zhejiang province),

The number of these institutions reporting TNE in each category is shown below.

table TNE

The University of Nottingham’s presence in China is the only one here identified as a branch campus (although the number of students here is rather out of date, it’s now over 5,600). The full report on the University of Nottingham Ningbo China can be found here and is highly complimentary both about the development itself – “an impressive achievement” – and the quality of the student experience.

Overall though there is a huge amount of activity by UK institutions and it comes in a wide variety of forms. Much of interest therefore in the QAA’s review.

The Imperfect University: More and more regulation

More Regulatory Woes

A recent speech by the Universities Minister focused on his apparent desire to reduce regulation for institutions: “We are in a government that understands the value of autonomy,” Mr Willetts said.

Mr Willetts talked about the possibility of reducing data collection requirements as well as the likelihood of universities escaping some EU regulation following the shift to majority private funding as a result of the new fees regime.

Both of these would be welcome steps. The burden of excessive regulation is a significant problem for universities. It might be thought that as the size of the public contribution to higher education funding declined this would be reflected in a reduction in red tape. Unfortunately, despite the rhetoric, universities are left with the feeling that the weight of regulation tends to keep growing rather than reducing.

So will the reduction in public funding really mean less government involvement in university affairs? Sadly, no. Rather than cuts in government funding to HE resulting in a bonfire of red tape, there is a whole host of new or augmented regulations, including:

  • The new fee arrangements which institutions are all deeply engaged in preparing for the implementation of at present
  • Changed student number controls, with the uncertainties of AAB+ and bidding for the 20,000 students at the margin
  • The move to more comprehensive annual access agreements with OFFA
  • The changed financial memorandum between institutions and HEFCE
  • New visa arrangements for Tier 2, staff, and Tier 4, students, together with monitoring arrangements for the latter
  • The Key Information Set (KIS) which will require all universities to provide more information to prospective students
  • The proposed introduction of a Student Charter
  • The idea of extended transcript information for all graduates through the Higher Education Achievement Record
  • The revised Quality Assurance Agency institutional review method
  • The increased burden of Freedom of Information requests
  • Developments in the work of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator
  • Charities regulation.

This is only part of the picture. The cost to the sector of compliance with this regulatory framework is significant. And this really is not what universities need right now. Part of the burden is data collection and the Information Landscape Project, announced by the Minister in the same speech, is intended to address this:

The BIS White Paper ‘Students at the Heart of the System’ discusses a new regulatory framework for HE in England and explicitly tasks HESA, working with the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the Higher Education Better Regulation Group and the Information Standards Board for education and skills, to redesign the information landscape in order to arrive at a new system that meets the needs of a wider group of users; reduces the duplication that currently exists and results in timelier and more relevant data.

Will this make a difference? We will see. Universities have been here before though and have yet to see a real impact on regulation.

Policy, Regulation and Lies?

So, how big is the accountability ‘burden’ on institutions? Looking back over the past dozen years there are several attempts to measure and to reduce or improve regulation. In 2004 PA Consulting, following up an earlier report on accountability costs, investigated changes in accountability costs as perceived by the universities they contacted. The study cited a number of changes since 2000 including the introduction of a revised QAA framework and reduced requirements from HEFCE in terms of bidding, tendering and consultations. The paper concluded, on the basis of its survey, that the accountability cost to the sector had declined over the four year period to the equivalent of £188m (at 2000 prices), a reduction of 25%. However, it is also noted that this was the equivalent to the ‘annual income of two large universities’ (at that time) and therefore ‘a cause for continued attention’. Something of an understatement, especially given the ‘slightly disconcerting’ range of additional accountability requirements identified in the report. These findings were commented on favourably by the (then) Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education in his presentation of the Government response to the Interim Report of the Better Regulation Review Group (in 2004).

The Better Regulation Review Group was succeeded by the Higher Education Regulation Review Group (HERRG). HERRG was established to ‘introduce a stage of informed scrutiny into the policy making process’. The impact of both groups was, arguably, negligible. It is difficult to muster much confidence that the latest incarnations of this kind of task force will be any more beneficial in terms of reducing the bureaucratic burden.

There is always a gap between policy as formulated and as implemented. The simplistic nature of the instrumental interpretation of relationship between policy and evaluation is rational but disconnected from reality. Unfortunately though, evaluation is often seen in this way, as the provision of information to policy makers or stakeholders who prefer simply described and preferably numerical outcomes. The disappointment at the lack of measurable output inevitably leads to a desire for further regulation in order to deliver greater confidence in the results of policy. The consequences of this though can be inimical to the intended ends of the original policy and corrosive of trust.

Victims of our own success

The role of HE in creating the professional labour force of the UK public sector is one example of how successful universities have been and how vital is their role in contemporary society. Given the importance of universities then the desire for intervention should not come as a surprise but the interventionist approach which characterises regulation in HE is also part of wider trends and a diminution of an historical trust which no longer appears to offer adequate reassurance of the quality and standard of HE provision. This decline in trust results in heavy transaction costs and, associated with the move towards controlling institutions via contract and regulation, matters have to become more explicit rather than implicit. It is difficult though to see this reduction in trust in institutions as anything other than a long term and irreversible trend. The very nature of the national quality assurance framework, for example, would seem to reinforce this and it is difficult to imagine that the historical basis of trust can be reconstructed.

Regulations - lots of them

Other angles

Some other interesting views: Martin Wolf [1] has argued that universities are, in effect, a nationalised industry which accepted their financial dependence on the state with the foundation of the UGC in 1919. The government has asked institutions to assure quality without providing the funds needed to ensure it and the less generously the government funds, the more it interferes with the universities. That has certainly been the experience in the last few years. Salter and Tapper [2] suggest that, whereas Robbins saw total institutional freedom as necessary for the efficient operation of universities, in the 1980s the principle of HE regulation was established to ensure the efficient use of public funds and then, having developed this far, specific accountability arrangements were needed.

The costs of regulation of HE outweigh the extremely limited benefits. Indeed the Better Regulation Task Force report says that the HE sector has ‘earned the right to more autonomy’ and that multiple audits, excessive data requirements and over-restrictive funding are ‘symptomatic of a lack of trust between government and the HE sector’.[3] The Chairman of the Task Force observes that ‘there is no evidence that the sector is particularly prone to management or financial failings or failures to deliver on academic performance’. The statement suggests that earned autonomy is a key theme for government which wants to see it applied more in HE. The report refers to the PA Consulting study (quoted above) which estimates the accountability burden for HE to be £250m per annum and notes that the National Audit Office regards HE as a low risk sector in terms of fraud and malpractice.

The changes made in HE regulation in the first decade or so of the 21st Century have not resulted in the reduction in burden and cost which is called for. The claimed 25% reduction in the burden of regulation between 2000 and 2004 seems extremely modest in the light of the above (incomplete) list of regulatory interventions which includes a number of new requirements replacing the eliminated accountability demands.

Private HE institutions, which are expected to increase in number under the new fee regime, will benefit from significantly lighter regulation. However, for everyone else there remains the seemingly iron law that as government funding declines the volume and range of government regulation inevitably increases. So, less money and ever greater constraints on how it can be spent. No matter what the Minister may say.

It could be worse?

Things may be difficult in universities but they could be an awful lot worse according to a recent story in the TES about the appearance of Geoff Russell, chief executive of the Skills Funding Agency (SFA), before the Public Accounts Committee which was considering how bureaucracy should be reduced in the FE sector:

Mr Russell’s retirement may be imminent but, as the hearing made clear, few expect the red tape that has stifled the sector for so long to be untangled any time soon. The committee was informed that, for every £5 that goes to FE, £1 is swallowed up by bureaucracy. The biggest difficulties, MPs heard, are caused by colleges having to deal with very different data obligations and regulations from several agencies simultaneously. A general FE college offering higher education provision, Mr Lang explained, has to accommodate the requirements of four different funding bodies – the Department for Education, the Young People’s Learning Agency, the SFA and the Higher Education Funding Council for England – as well as policy directives from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).

That’s pretty expensive and works out at more than £150 per student according to the National Audit Office. Things may be bad for the universities but at least they aren’t this bad. So, should we feel lucky?

What is to be done?

There has been only one substantive change in the last decade to the mass of regulation loaded onto institutions: the ending of subject-based inspection of universities (Subject Review or TQA as it was originally known). Whilst undoubtedly welcome and beneficial, the gain the ending of such inspections represented has more than been replaced by other forms of regulation. So the burden continues to grow. One step forward, two steps back.

What then are universities to do? In order to respond to the ever increasing burden of regulation I would suggest that the following steps are worthy of consideration:

  • Don’t put too much faith in Ministerial rhetoric when it comes to reducing bureaucracy;
  • When working out how to deal with all of the different regulatory demands try to sort what really matters from what is less important – assuring quality and standards, and complying with the demands of the QAA is pretty important as is legal compliance with health and safety, employment and equality legislation but other regulations may be less significant;
  • Protect core activities, ie teaching and research, from the impact of regulation as far as is possible;
  • In most cases, go for minimal compliance rather than ‘gold-plating’ of procedures to respond to regulation – this often means steering away from what may be seen as ‘best practice’;
  • Object to new regulations wherever possible – work with others for greater effect;
  • Don’t be deflected from delivering the agreed university strategy by regulation.

Will we see a reduction in the regulatory burden as Mr Willetts claims? We might, but it is unlikely to make a big difference. My advice? Don’t hold your breath.


[1] Wolf, M (2002), ‘How to save the British Universities’, Singer and Friedlander Lecture, delivered on September 26 2002 at Magdalen College, Oxford

[2] Salter, B and Tapper, T (2000), ‘The politics of Governance in Higher Education: the Case of Quality Assurance’, Political Studies, 48(1), pp66-87.

[3] Better Regulation Task Force (22 July 2002), Press release for Higher Education: Easing the burden, London: Cabinet Office.

Regulation, Regulation, Regulation

More Regulatory Woes

In University Governance: Questions for a New Era, Professor Malcolm Gillies looks at a whole set of issues around university governance. A previous post noted his suggestion about a greater involvement of alumni but he suggests that they will become more important than the state, at least in governance terms, because of the change in balance of funding from public to private, ie from government to graduate:

42. State denial:  The withdrawal of the state as chief funding agent of higher education creates new balances in governance authority.  The body which can be most expected to fill that space is the alumni, as they now become the chief funding agent of most English universities in direct replacement of that state interest, through their decades-long repayment of state-provided loans.  The alumni also have the greatest, life-long stake in the institution’s reputation and its protection.  They understand the institution’s symbolic value.

But will the reduction in public funding really mean less government involvement in university affairs? Sadly, no. Rather than cuts in government funding to HE resulting in a bonfire of red tape, there is a whole host of new or augmented regulations, including:

  • The new fee arrangements which institutions are all deeply engaged in considering at present
  • Student number controls, which may well change in the light of fee developments
  • The move to more comprehensive annual access agreements with OFFA
  • The changed financial memorandum between institutions and HEFCE
  • New visa arrangements for Tier 2, staff, and Tier 4, students, together with monitoring arrangements for the latter
  • The Key Information Set (KIS) which will require all universities to provide more information to prospective students
  • The proposed introduction of a Student Charter
  • The idea of extended transcript information for all graduates through the Higher Education Achievement Record
  • The revised Quality Assurance Agency institutional review method
  • The increased burden of Freedom of Information requests
  • Developments in the work of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator

Private HE institutions, which are expected to increase in number under the new fee regime, benefit from significantly lighter  regulation. However, for everyone else there remains the seemingly iron law that as government funding declines the volume and range of government regulation inevitably increases. So, less money and ever greater constraints on how it can be spent.

MP challenges ‘free’ MA degrees

Proposal to eliminate the ‘free’ Oxbridge MA

Entertaining attempt this by Chris Leslie (my local MP). He recently introduced a short ‘ten minute rule Bill’ in the Commons (the Master’s Degree (Minimum Standards) Bill). The Bill seeks to prohibit Oxford and Cambridge Universities from automatically awarding a ‘free’ postgraduate Master’s degree to anyone who left with a BA(Hons), whereas anyone else who wants an MA must actually study for a full year, sit exams and pay rather more in fees than is required for the Oxbridge award.

The Hansard exchanges give a flavour of a good natured but, you fear, sadly doomed proposition:

Eleven years ago, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education said:

    “The Masters title causes much misunderstanding… most employers think it always represents an award for postgraduate study.”

There is no logical or justifiable defence of that historical anachronism, which grew out of ancient circumstances that have long been irrelevant to modern academic practice. To preserve the MA’s academic integrity, it is time to discontinue Oxbridge colleges’ ability to award unearned qualifications that can so easily cause confusion. That is why my short Bill would prohibit granting master’s degrees unless certain minimum academic standards are attained.

So, a worthy effort by Chris Leslie. Whilst it would be unfortunate if Parliament were to think it was appropriate to legislate for or against particular autonomous institutions’ awards, this should serve as a reminder that this really should be sorted out.

Universities ‘scared of private sector’

Oh no we’re not

Some festive cheer from

The analysis here is somewhat overstating the case though:

Massive efficiency savings which could drive down costs in higher education are only possible if university managers get over their suspicion of the private sector, Policy Exchange has claimed. A report by the centre-right thinktank’s Alex Massey published today argues that significant benefits are possible from “productive collaborative arrangements”.

Up to 30% of the total cost of university administration could be saved if more services were shared, the report claims. Across the total higher education sector this amounts to £2.7 billion.

There really is nothing much new in this report from Policy Exchange, the full text of which can be found here.

Four brief points to note:

  1. Universities really do need the VAT changes we have argued for for many years in order to create real incentives for sharing services (the report endorses this).
  2. Simply outsourcing lots of services does not necessarily deliver a better service for students or guarantee savings: it works in certain areas in certain contexts at certain times but is no panacea.
  3. The report rightly acknowledges significant examples of sector wide shared services which already exist, including UCAS, but also what about JANET and Not sure would really argue that QAA is a shared service in the same sense although there is a case for HESA.
  4. The savings figures quoted here are just fantasy.

So, overall a modest contribution to the very real challenges facing universities. Yes, we should collaborate more on services but only where it will both deliver savings and improve the quality of the service we provide. But the idea that universities are ‘scared’ of the private sector is very wide of the mark.

Browne report: the end of the QAA (and OFFA and OIA)

Beyond changes to higher education funding

Naturally, all of the attention today will be on the funding elements of the Browne report. However, one significant change which is unlikely to attract much comment will nevertheless carry major implications for universities. It is proposed to merge four agencies into one:

The higher education system is currently overseen by four bodies: HEFCE, QAA, OFFA and OIA. These will be replaced by a single Higher Education (HE) Council. It will take a more targeted approach to regulation, with greater autonomy for institutions.

The Council will be independent from Government and institutions. It will have five areas of responsibility:
• Investment – identifying and investing in high priority courses; evaluating value for money; dealing with the unexpected, with the primary aim of protecting students’ interests
• Quality – setting and enforcing minimum quality levels across the whole sector
• Equity of access – making sure that individual institutions and the sector as a whole make measurable progress on admitting qualified students from disadvantaged backgrounds
• Competition – ensuring that students get the benefits of more competition, by publishing an annual survey of charges, and looking after the interests of students when an institution is at risk
• Dispute resolution – students can ask the Council to adjudicate on a dispute that cannot be resolved within their institution and provide a decision which binds both sides
The HE Council will explain how it is investing taxpayers’ money, and safeguarding students’ investment in higher education, through an annual report to Parliament.

So, it looks like the end of the road for the QAA, OFFA and OIA.

Some problems with academic standards and comparability

Some problems with academic standards and comparability

HEPI has recently published an interesting brief report by Professor Roger Brown on the comparability of academic standards in higher education. Whilst there is a periodic and reasonably predictable media interest in university standards, similar to the annual panic over the alleged decline in A level standards every August, academic standards remain one of the most misunderstood concepts in higher education. This absence of clarity of definition means that debates about standards are characterised by misconceptions and muddled thinking.

The HEPI report represents an attempt to address this problem. It is also a response to the 2009 IUSS Select Committee report which offered some staggeringly unhelpful and misinformed observations on universities but was also memorable for the challenge to the Vice–Chancellors of Oxford and Oxford Brookes Universities to compare the standards of degrees at their institutions.

When we took oral evidence, we asked the Vice- Chancellors of Oxford Brookes University and the University of Oxford whether upper seconds in history from their respective universities were equivalent. Professor Beer, Vice- Chancellor of Oxford Brookes, replied:

It depends what you mean by equivalent. I am sorry to quibble around the word but is it worth the same is a question that is weighted with too many social complexities. In terms of the way in which quality and standards are managed in the university I have every confidence that a 2:1 in history from Oxford Brookes is of a nationally recognised standard.

When asked the same question Dr Hood, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, responded:

We teach in very different ways between the two institutions and I think our curricula are different between the two institutions, so the question really is are we applying a consistent standard in assessing our students as to firsts, 2:1s, 2:2s et cetera? What I want to say in that respect is simply this, that we use external examiners to moderate our examination processes in all of our disciplinary areas at Oxford, and we take that external examination assessment very, very seriously. The external examiners’ reports after each round are submitted through our faculty boards, they are assessed and considered by the faculty boards, they are then assessed at the divisional board level and by the educational committee of the university. This is a process that goes on round the clock annually, so we would be comfortable that our degree classifications are satisfying an expectation of national norms.(1)

This attempt to sustain the really rather extraordinary proposition that all degrees represent the same standard of achievement by students regardless of the context or inputs did higher education no favours. The Vice-Chancellors and Roger Brown argue that the issue is not about comparability and, despite the contortions at the Committee, it is difficult not to agree with that proposition.

But where do we go from there? Is it simply a free for all? Do we just let market forces rule (if they don’t already – it is an employer’s market)? Brown suggests a number of steps intended to ensure a minimum level of achievement of all graduates. These graduate threshold standards would be intended to offer reassurance to all stakeholders that anyone with a degree had achieved to at least a minimum level. Whilst performance above the minimum would vary among students and across institutions this would be fine because at least minimum standards were assured. This approach is very reminiscent of the recommendations made in the 1990s by the Higher Education Quality Council’s Graduate Standards Programme (GSP)(2). The GSP sought to establish just such a set of minimum threshold standards and to codify a set of attributes which would encapsulate ‘graduateness’. Interesting, thorough and academic, the GSP proposals didn’t take off.

Perhaps they are back on the agenda though. As part of its approach Brown proposes a number of steps:

• Publish learning outcomes
• Refine benchmark standards
• Establish external examiner networks
• Improve assessment practice
• Replace honours degree classification
• Clarify definitional problems, eg with ‘comparability’

It is difficult not to feel a certain amount of sympathy for this approach which rightly recognises the fundamental futility of seeking to establish comparability of academic standards. Sustaining what has been described as the ‘polite myth’ of standards comparability, ie that a 2.1 in English from Cambridge is of the same standard as 2.1 in the same subject from a newly constituted institution, given the differences in every input measure is simply not credible. Yet this is what the sector traditionally argues and it is rightly criticised both in Brown’s report and, despite all of its other errors, the IUSS Select Committee.

Many of the problems in dealing with standards arise from difficulties with definition and Brown rightly identifies the need to address this. However, at the heart of the current QAA quality architecture is the notion that greater explicitness is required about standards in order to give all stakeholders confidence in the security of standards. Brown seems to accept this in arguing the need for learning outcomes and benchmark statements. But there is really no alternative to accepting the need to trust the judgement of professionals and the range of proxies devised over many years to assure the legitimacy of their collective decisions. National Vocational Qualifications (or NVQs, of which Alison Wolf has acerbically commented that they are ‘a great idea for other people’s children’(3)) and the extreme developments of the US learning by objectives movement sought to impose maximum explicitness and thereby to minimise the need for judgement. But attempts such as these to provide comprehensive explanations to students in advance both mislead and misrepresent reality and may, ultimately, endanger the standards they purport to uphold – the nature of learning is just not amenable to such detailed pre-specification. Moreover, explicitness about standards, cannot, in itself, convince that those standards are being achieved. There is no necessary correlation between description and understanding; this is simply a variant of a naming fallacy. Standards are not, and cannot be conceived of in an academic context as pure, absolute, Platonic forms but are relative, context-dependent and contingent.

Martin Wolf, although referring to the challenges of HE expansion, highlights a related problem about comparability:

‘if 50 per cent of the generation are to go to university and degree standards are to be the same everywhere, either everybody at Oxford or Cambridge gets a first or vast numbers of students must fail to get a degree altogether’. (4)

Whilst Brown suggests we should seek to sustain the notion of comparability of standards, at least at the threshold level, it is not clear that there is value in this, even if it is feasible. So, where do we go from here? There is huge difficulty in comparing standards, over time, between subjects, between institutions. They are different. There is no point in pretending otherwise. Establishing a threshold is not impossible and may well be helpful but it is questionable whether it is worth it in a system where over 60% of students receive first class or upper second class degrees.

(1) Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, Students and Universities, Eleventh Report of Session 2008–09, Volume I, HC 170-I, 2009
(2) Higher Education Quality Council (1997), Graduate Standards Programme Final Report, London: HEQC
(3) Wolf, A (2002), Does Education Matter?, London: Penguin.
(4) Wolf, M (September 26 2002), ‘How to save the British Universities’, Singer and Friedlander Lecture, delivered at Magdalen College, Oxford.

‘Radical change’ is needed to reassure public on standards says THE

Follow up to earlier post on this topic.

According to Times Higher Education: “‘Radical change’ is needed to reassure public on standards”.

External examiners would be interviewed by inspection teams and universities would give a clear indication of the number of hours they expect students to study under plans to boost public confidence in the quality of higher education. A new “public-facing” role for the Quality Assurance Agency and an independent channel for external examiners to report concerns are also among the wide-ranging proposals published in a report to the Higher Education Funding Council for England on 1 October.

Hefce’s Teaching, Quality and the Student Experience sub-committee, chaired by Colin Riordan, vice-chancellor of the University of Essex, was set up to investigate concerns about standards raised last year. Its key message is that while there is “no systemic failure” in the sector, allegations of poor quality pose a serious risk to its reputation, and “radical change” is required in the way that information about quality and standards is communicated.

It is important to stress that the ‘radical change’ here relates to the communication of information, not to the wider issues about the assurance of standards and quality (and to note that the word ‘radical’ appears only once in the report, in the foreword). Articulating arrangements for the assurance of academic standards in a clear and accessible way is notoriously difficult – as the IUSS select committee discovered when talking to the VCs from Oxford and Oxford Brookes Universities.

External Examiner review (and quality and standards)

Universities UK is to undertake a review of external examining

A press release from Universities UK gives some background to the recently announced review of external examiners:

In his keynote speech at the Universities UK Annual Conference, President Professor Steve Smith announced that UUK, together with GuildHE and in collaboration with agencies such as the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) and the Higher Education Academy (HEA), would lead a UK-wide review of external examiner arrangements. This review will seek to ensure that the system remains robust, recommending any improvements uniuk240px
which would continue to support the comparability of academic standards and meet future challenges.

The Group, which will be chaired by a Vice-Chancellor (to be announced) and include representatives from across the sector, will address various issues, including:

  • The need to develop Terms of Reference for the role, to support consistency
  • Reinforcing the specific role of external examiners in ensuring appropriate and comparable standards
  • Analysing the level of support given by institutions to external examining, both financial and professional
  • Current and future challenges and changing practice (such as modularisation) and their implications for external examining
  • Comparing the UK system with international practice

After 12 months, the Group will produce a report, highlighting the immediate short-term improvements, as well as longer term challenges and how these should be addressed.

Meanwhile, HEFCE has just announced the outcome of a study on quality and standards which has been picked up by the BBC. Its recommendations include:

  • a review is needed of publicly available information provided by higher education institutions (HEIs) to meet the needs of students, parents, advisers and professionals
  • a complete review of the external examiner system should be undertaken
  • the degree classification system should be improved so that it better reflects student achievement.

Looks like there will be a bit more work then beyond external examiners but these do not seem to be hugely challenging tasks (indeed they have been on the agenda for some time) and reflect the conclusions of the HEFCE report that “There is no systemic failure in quality and standards in English higher education (HE), but there are issues needing to be addressed”.

This UUK external examiner review, supported by the HEFCE study, represents a speedy response to the recent (truly dreadful) report of the IUSS Select Committee. The IUSS report recommends the implementation of one of the 1997 Dearing recommendations, rejected at the time, on the creation of a national system of external examiners. It is to be hoped that the UUK review arrives at something sensible. (For anyone with a longish memory on these things it feels a bit like 1994-95 again and the Graduate Standards Programme and its reviews of external examining.)

Accountability costs “cut by £50 million”

Times Higher Education: Accountability costs cut by £50 million.

A Hefce-commissioned report from PA Consulting claims universities’ administrative burden has been reduced by £50m. As reported in THE:

Between 2004 and 2008, it says in the report, the costs of accountability fell by just over a fifth, broadly in line with Hefce’s targets. This fall follows a 25 per cent reduction in the administrative burden between 2000 and 2004, and Hefce wants costs to be cut by a further 10 per cent by 2010-11. According to the study’s authors, PA Consulting Group, the total costs of compliance fell from about £240 million in 2004 to £190 million last year.

Seems pretty straightforward – unequivocally good news?

However, despite these headline figures, Mike Boxhall, one of the authors of the report, said that the picture behind the numbers remained “quite mixed”. While the study measured costs linked with specific accountability demands from bodies such as Hefce and the Quality Assurance Agency, it did not consider the impact of more general public regulations such as the costs of complying with health and safety laws or the Freedom of Information Act, he said. Steve Egan, deputy chief executive of Hefce, said the sector was moving from a position in which accountability was seen as a burden to one in which it was a “positive force”.

It really isn’t as clear cut therefore. Day to day experience in universities simply doesn’t feel as if there is lighter regulation. And the idea that all of this regulation is somehow a really good thing and not a burden is just bizarre.

The HEFCE press release is obviously very upbeat and the report itself is worth a look.

The question remains though: what is the problem to which this regulatory regime is the solution?

He really doesn’t like the QAA

Entertaining Guardian interview with Thomas Docherty

It includes some quotations from his forthcoming book which offer a choice perspective on the QAA:

Is the Quality Assurance Agency (a) a safeguard designed to maintain and improve academic standards or (b) the “worst thing to happen to higher education in recent times – and perhaps ever”?

Docherty is not afraid of courting controversy. “The QAA, for those of us who have suffered under its tawdry posturing, is a cancer that gnaws at the core of knowledge, value and freedom in education; its carcinogenic growth is now perhaps the greatest pervasive danger to the function of a university as a surviving institution,” he writes. “It has presided over the valorisation and celebration of mediocrity, paradoxically at the very moment when it is allegedly assuring the public of the quality of education and universities …”

Looking forward to reading more. The book is:

The English Question: Or Academic Freedoms

The synopsis on Amazon:

To be or not to be free, that is the question, the English question, the question of what is academic English at the beginning of the 21st century. So argues Thomas Docherty in this new and important new study, a study that begins with the claim that the fundamental idea governing the institution of the University is a will to freedom. Tracing a history of the modern European University from Vico onwards and including Hume, Rousseau, Schiller, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Newman, Alain, Benda and Jaspers, the author argues the academy’s will to freedom is grounded in study of the ‘eloquence’ that has shaped literate and humane values. He goes on to explore the current condition of English as a literary discipline, arguing that literary studies is (or should be) a search for the unknown; and that in only that search can the academy establish the real meaning – or meanings – of social, political and ethical freedom.

So it really does go much further than just a critique of the QAA.

Degree awarding powers for private company

Degree awarding powers for BPP College


According to their website:

BPP College of Professional Studies (“BPP College”) today announced that the Privy Council has approved the grant of degree awarding powers to BPP College (which comprises BPP Law School and BPP Business School). BPP College is owned by BPP Holdings plc, a publicly quoted company on the London Stock Exchange. The grant of degree awarding powers makes BPP College the first private sector company to be a degree awarding entity in the United Kingdom.

The decision by the Privy Council follows a very full and careful audit and review by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (“QAA”) of BPP College’s organisation, governance and management as well as close scrutiny of BPP College’s quality assurance mechanisms, academic standards and its support systems for students and staff.

The report of the review is not published under the current procedures so guess we will have to wait for the first audit to learn more.

Further coverage offered by BBC.

So, the question for all other institutions is – should we be worried?