‘Universities are restating their commitment to upholding quality and standards’

Dr Charlotte Snelling, policy manager at Universities UK, says the sector welcomes much of the plans but concerns over details remain

As thousands of students across the country prepare to settle back into campus life (and thanks to vaccines, it’s a reality this year), their attention will be turning back to their studies. We know their expectations will be high.

Proposals in the latest Office for Students (OfS) consultation on quality and standards aim to ensure that these expectations of students for high quality courses are met.

Universities are unanimous in agreeing with the OfS that every student, whatever their background or course, and however and wherever they’re studying, deserve a high quality education. Also, that they should be able to feel confident in the academic standards that underpin the qualifications they will be gaining. This is how higher education supports students to succeed and meet their personal aspirations, while ensuring the UK’s graduates continue to be some of the best in the world.

The focus of the OfS’ new conditions of registration on areas of course design and delivery, academic student support, assessment, and standards matches those areas where the sector is already committed to strengthening its offer. Recent work by Universities UK (UUK) has included:

In publishing its response to the consultation today, UUK welcomes the commitment to upholding quality and standards through a principles and risk-based regulatory approach, centred around compliance with minimum baselines. This allows universities to demonstrate compliance in ways that fit their context, the courses they deliver and the students they work with. This is important. One of the strengths of UK higher education is its diversity. This diversity is good for innovation and creativity, and it is good for student choice. If implemented well, the proposed approach should ensure regulation is effective and proportionate in targeting the right issues.

New illustrative examples of what compliance might look like are also helpful. They start to provide universities, students, and the public with a shared understanding of what we mean when we talk about ‘quality’, and reassuringly they represent things universities are already doing. There are, however, many more examples of good practice that not only meet but go way beyond these baseline requirements. Students can be confident that as they start the new academic year, they are accessing high quality courses.

While the proposals present a useful starting point, however, there are still practical implementation issues that need more consideration.

This includes if and how the regulation should cover courses funded and regulated by other bodies, for example teacher training and transnational education, without creating unnecessary duplication of effort or confusion through potentially conflicting approaches. There also needs to be more clarity on the regulation of partnerships, including who is ultimately responsible for any regulatory breach. Without this, the proposals risk inadvertently discouraging partnerships that will be central to government priorities of lifelong learning, levelling up, and the international education strategy.

We would also welcome further engagement on contextualisation, including how relevant context and expert academic input can be used to inform judgements in a fair, consistent, and appropriate way.

The proposals formally decouple regulation in England from the UK Quality Code for Higher Education. There is still much to be gained from cross-UK collaboration so we think that opportunities for consistency with the rest of the UK must still be explored. The OfS also needs to consider how it will communicate its new approach to audiences internationally, to retain their confidence in and understanding of quality assurance in England and the UK.

Finally, it should not be forgotten that we are still grappling with the uncertainty of COVID-19. The pandemic’s impact on teaching and learning will continue to affect capacity within institutions, how they are delivering courses, and the data being collected. It would be unwise to introduce major changes to the regulatory framework now, especially when we are expecting further consultation this autumn on student outcomes as another proposed measure of quality and the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).

Quality and standards sit at the heart of what universities do and how they deliver for students. It is right that expectations are high, and in most cases universities are meeting these. For those outlier courses where things are falling short, we agree that robust regulation and internal quality assurance is needed. UUK has welcomed this opportunity to shape the regulatory framework but would encourage the OfS to pursue further engagement with the sector to refine its approach.

Dr Charlotte Snelling is a policy manager at Universities UK

Read more: UUK warns OfS plans for quality and standards risk ‘unnecessary regulatory burden’

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