Wells Advisory QAA UK Series: What next for quality assurance in England?

Changes to the role of the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) as the Designated Quality Body (DQB) for England

Paper prepared by Dr Elizabeth Halford, Director Wells Advisory UK

Executive summary

This paper is the first in a series to be published by Wells Advisory considering the impact on UK higher education of the recent decision by the QAA to withdraw from its role as the Designated Quality Body for England. The implications explored in this paper include:

  • The role of QAA in the infrastructure of UK higher education
  • Financial implications
  • Impact of the role of the OfS
  • The reputation of English higher education

Background and context:

It has been announced that the QAA will no longer operate as the DQB for England with effect from 1 April 2023. The following statement is made on the QAA website:

“QAA has announced that it has notified the Secretary of State for Education that it will no longer consent to be the Designated Quality Body in England (DQB) after the current DQB year ends on 31 March 2023.

QAA is the UK’s independent quality body for higher education, working in each of the four nations of the UK and internationally to benefit the sector and students. It is custodian of UK-wide sector reference points including the Quality Code for Higher Education and Subject Benchmark Statements. In England, alongside its wider work for the sector (funded through membership), it has since 2018 had a separate and discrete role as the DQB, providing assessments to the Office for Students (OfS).

QAA has decided not to continue in the DQB role because the requirements made of the DQB by the current regulatory approach in England are not consistent with standard international practice for quality bodies, as reflected in the European Standards and Guidelines (ESG). QAA’s work in other nations of the UK and internationally depends on QAA’s registration on the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education (EQAR), which is based on compliance with the ESG. EQAR recently temporarily suspended QAA’s registration, citing areas of non-compliance in England. QAA has addressed these areas of non-compliance by announcing that it is publishing all reports of DQB reviews and including students on all DQB review teams, but believes that in the longer term it is not sustainable to meet both sets of requirements.

Vicki Stott, QAA’s Chief Executive, said: ‘We are committed to remaining EQAR registered, and so have reluctantly decided that it is no longer possible to continue as the DQB in England. We are working closely with DfE and OfS to ensure a smooth transition. We also look forward to the opportunities that will result for our other work, including enhancing our offer to our members in England and across the UK.’ “

The role of QAA in the infrastructure of UK higher education

The QAA was founded in 1997 by the transfer of functions and staff from the former Higher Education Quality Council and the quality assessment divisions of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and the

Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW). It is an independent body (a registered charity and company limited by guarantee) which has a Board of Governors drawn from all types of higher education providers, as well as bodies outside the HE sector. QAA  was not and is not a regulatory body, with the exception of regulating the Access to HE Diploma, which is awarded by various Access Validating Authorities and offered by further education colleges. Until 2018, QAA was contracted by HEFCE to undertake the quality assurance function. The primary responsibility of HEFCE was a s a funding body, with responsibility for the distribution of grants for teaching and research. It also had responsibilities for the strategic planning of higher education, together with a subsidiary responsibility for the regulation of the sector. In 2015, a new Chief Executive of HEFCE announced that a consultation on quality assurance for HE in England would take place, in line with the view that the existing system was no longer suitable for an expanded and diverse sector, in which undergraduate tuition fees were financed by the Student Loans Company, rather than by teaching grants to institutions, and in which the cap on student recruitment numbers had been removed, creating a market in HE. This process was part of a wider review of the state apparatus of higher education in England, resulting in the Higher Education and Research Act (HERA) 2017.

It should be noted that, subsequent to the founding of QAA, higher education within the UK became a matter for the devolved governments of the four countries (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) with different legislation and regulatory requirements applying in each country. However, there are aspects of regulation, such as the qualifications framework, which apply throughout the UK.

The majority of HE provision in the UK is concentrated in England and the regulatory body with responsibility for higher education in England is the Office for Students (OfS), which became fully operational on 1 August 2019 (as a consequence of HERA), with all existing (and subsequently aspiring) higher education providers being required to apply for registration with the OfS.

The regulatory bodies in the UK are:

England – the Office for Students (OfS).

Scotland – the Scottish Funding Council (SFC)

Wales – the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW)

Northern Ireland – the Department for the Economy (DfE)

Each of these administrations has separate expectations and requirements; however, expectations on academic standards affecting the student experience are set by the UK Quality Code for Higher Education, which applies to all four nations of the UK and to all HEPs offering UK awards through transnational arrangements. The Quality Code was developed by QAA as a set of guidelines and reference points to inform the institutional review process and is owned by QAA.

Legal requirements for a designated quality body

HERA  specifies the functions of a DQB in sections 23 and 46:

Section 23 – assessing the quality of, and the standards applied to, higher education

Section 46 – advice to the OfS on the granting, variation or revocation of degree awarding powers

Any organisation applying to be the DQB must meet the conditions below, and only one application (from the QAA) was received in 2017. This application was recommended for approval by the OfS to the DfE and QAA became the DQB with effect from 1 April 2018. The DQB can charge annual fees to all registered higher education providers in England. These fees are payable in addition to the annual registration fees to the OfS and those payable to the designated data body (DDB), currently HESA. The annual fees are based on student numbers (FTE) and for the current academic year range from £2,120 for up to 25 students, to £13,045 for more than 30,000 students. See link below:

https://www.qaa.ac.uk/about-us/where-we-work/our-work-in-england/annual-designated-quality-body-fees-and-reconciliation-fees

Conditions for the DQB:

Condition A: the body is capable of performing the assessment functions in an effective manner

Condition B(a): the persons who determine the strategic priorities of the body represent a broad range of registered higher education providers

Condition B(b): the body commands the confidence of registered higher education providers

Condition B(c): the body exercises its functions independent of any particular higher education provider

Condition C: the body consents to being designated under Schedule 4 of HERA

Condition D: the body is a body corporate and is not — (a) a servant or agent of the Crown, or (b) a body to which the Secretary of State appoints members

Implications of the QAA decision to step away from its role as the DQB (i.e. no longer fulfil Condition C above)

  1. Misalignment of approaches between QAA and OfS?

The main reason given by QAA for its decision to relinquish the role of DQB is stated as the inconsistency of the current regulatory requirements in England with the standard international practice of quality bodies, as reflected in the European Standards and Guidelines (ESG). In particular, the non-publication of institutional reports (which are provided to the OfS) and the lack of student representation on review panels. These reasons hint at differences in approach between QAA and OfS, as the latter moves from the period of initial registration to a greater focus on the compliance of existing providers.

The ESG reflect the dominant culture of higher education quality assurance in European countries, which is one of critical self-reflection to promote enhancement, rather than a requirement to meet threshold conditions of registration for providers. This is in evidence in Scotland, where the QAA review method is Enhancement – led  Institutional Review (ELIR). However, this more laissez-faire approach does not sit easily with a regulatory model seeking to protect public investment in higher education, assure academic standards and promote value for money to students, in a marketized licensing system which directs loans for tuition fees to individual students.

It is reasonable, therefore, to speculate that QAA regards its work in the other three countries of the UK, and internationally, with the related need to conform to the ESG, as better aligned to its future than remaining as the DQB in England.

  1. Financial

 It must be assumed that QAA has done the necessary financial calculations in respect of reduced revenue from the loss of annual fees from registered HEPs, but this is likely to be considerable! The number of registered providers is currently 417 – of varying sizes, but a fairly conservative estimate based on the number of large universities and alternative providers paying the higher fees would indicate approximately £1.5m annual lost revenue for QAA.

It is unlikely that fees from the number of HEPs in the other nations of the UK could generate anything like the lost income, so it may be that QAA will seek to generate alternative income by developing its consultancy offer to the sector, when it will no longer have the conflict of interest potential of being the DQB. There may also be an increased focus on the international offer to institutions offering UK awards transnationally.

  1. Impact on the OfS?

The HERA requires that an independent DQB should be appointed on the recommendation of the OfS. As only one application was received in respect of this role upon the implementation of HERA, it is reasonable to assume that other organisations may be reluctant or unable to apply (and meet the necessary conditions). This raises two possibilities:

  • English higher education does not have a DQB in operation
  • The OfS takes this function in house, meaning that the DQB is not independent in the current guise of the OfS.

The second possibility would mean that an amendment to HERA is necessary (possibly a statutory instrument). Such amendment could take the form of changing the DQB conditions or look at broader reform of the OfS framework, for example to invest it with greater independence. When considering the question of independence, it should be noted that the OfS is not subject to ministerial direction from the Department for Education (DfE) in relation to regulatory judgements, but strategic guidance to the OfS is provided by ministerial letters from the Department.

Reputation of English HE

The public statement of QAA regarding its reason for stepping away from the DQB role implies that the regulatory requirements for English higher education are not sufficient for internationally perceived good practice, and in order to meet these (as specified by the ESG) QAA must operate separately from the English regulator (OfS). This could place English universities and private providers (and therefore English qualifications) in the position of being regarded as inadequately assured for international delivery, with a concomitant adverse impact on international recruitment to England and to offshore campuses.

As commented in an article on the Wonkhe website:

‘From March 2023 degree programmes in England will sit outside any internationally recognised system of quality assurance. This may well have serious implications for providers offering joint programmes internationally – specific quality assurance would need to be sought (and QAA may be able to offer the required ESG-compliant type). It’s even possible that there could be issues with the recognition of degrees awarded in England overseas.’ See Wonkhe.com for the full article (QAA to step away from designated role in England)

This article also offers an interesting commentary on the QAA resignation as DQB.

The deregistration of the QAA at EQAR is the end point of a conversation that has been ongoing for some time. The issues stem from the restrictions that OfS has placed on DQB activity – breaching EQAR registration requirements on the involvement of students in assessment panels (ESG 2.4) and the publication of review reports (ESG 2.6).

The future

The decision by QAA to step away from its role as the DQB for England is perhaps a consequence of the transition of the role of the OfS as a regulator dealing mainly with the initial registration of higher education providers, now that the first wave is completed (with 417 providers currently on the register) to having a primary focus on compliance. A regulatory body for higher education has a legitimate interest in quality assurance, and there are various models available internationally regarding the balance and independence of these two aspects of the regulatory role.  The OfS, as the regulator for England, has a statutory responsibility to ensure compliance with the conditions of registration, which cover academic standards and the learning experience provided to students (including student outcomes) as well as management and governance, financial sustainability, and adherence to consumer protection law.

The HERA of 2017 stipulated the appointment of an independent quality body (the DQB) which QAA was eminently qualified to fulfill. However, it may be that it will be difficult to find another organisation that is able to meet the conditions for the DQB, in which case, the role could be absorbed within the OfS. Although this response would not appear to meet the existing requirements for independence of quality assurance, there are instances of regulatory agencies which combine the two functions of regulation and quality assurance, for example the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) which is the independent national quality assurance and regulatory agency for higher education in Australia. The purpose of TEQSA is to protect student interests and the reputation of Australia’s higher education sector through a proportionate, risk-reflective approach to quality assurance that supports diversity, innovation, and excellence. The Australian model preceded the OfS model by at least six years and subsumed among other things the previous quality agency (Australian Universities Quality Agency). The two approaches bear an interesting comparison, one that we will survey in a Part 2 to this article in the near future. 

There are indications that OfS will, to an extent, be undertaking a quality role, when it implements the requirements for providers to meet the B3 metrics for student outcomes from October 2022, and the requirement to make a Teaching Excellence (TEF) submission in January 2023. The path ahead must surely lie in an evolution towards greater melding of two approaches rather than their contra-distinction, one which embraces innovation and a recognition that the interests to be protected are ultimately one and the same.