- Foreword from the Chair
- Executive summary
- Context for the formation of the sub-committee
- Areas of concern
- Next steps
- Summary of judgements/recommendations
- TQSE sub-committee – terms of reference and membership
- Results of audit and review activity between 2002 and 2009
- QAA's 'Outcomes from institutional audit'
- TQI/NSS Steering Group – membership and terms of reference
1. In November 2008, the Teaching, Quality, and the Student Experience (TQSE) sub-committee was formed to investigate concerns raised over the quality of English higher education (HE). This document reports on the work of the sub-committee and sets out its recommendations.
2. This report has been produced in response to concerns raised in the public domain during 2008 – most notably in national media, but also in published reports – over perceived threats to quality and standards in English higher education.
3. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), which has a statutory duty to ensure that provision is made for assessing the quality of education in institutions it funds, took these concerns very seriously. The HEFCE Board and its strategic committee for Teaching, Quality and the Student Experience agreed to set up a TQSE sub-committee specifically to investigate these concerns and consider:
- whether the concerns were substantiated
- how public confidence in the quality and standards of the HE sector might be maintained and where necessary restored
- whether there was a risk that HEFCE’s statutory duty might be compromised
- what actions should be recommended to HEFCE and others as a result.
4. In considering these issues, the sub-committee had to bear in mind that HEFCE is only one of a number of organisations with an interest in quality and standards. Most notably, higher education institutions (HEIs) are responsible for setting and maintaining the standards of the awards they offer with reference to sector-agreed benchmarks. The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) carries out evaluations of academic quality and is responsible for maintaining the Academic Infrastructure against which standards are referenced. Public, statutory and regulatory bodies also contribute to this area. All these organisations and others need to work together in maintaining the quality and standards, and hence the reputation, of English higher education. Members of the sub-committee also bore in mind that some elements of quality assurance apply to the whole UK higher education sector. For example, the Academic Infrastructure is a national framework, and some of the reports and evidence used refer to HE throughout the UK, rather than England only.
5. The current cycle of institutional audit, the quality assurance method used in English HEIs, comes to an end in 2010-11. The sub-committee therefore had an opportunity to make recommendations on how the method could be revised to address some of the concerns.
6. The sub-committee’s overall conclusion is that there is no systemic failure in quality and standards in English higher education. It did however identify several areas of concern which need to be addressed if the effectiveness of the quality assurance system is to be maintained in the future.
Areas of concern considered by the sub-committee
7. The committee considered a wide range of evidence sources in relation to the following key areas of concern.
8. Admissions procedures. The sector faced allegations that students who would not be able to benefit from higher education were being admitted to HE, and in particular that international students were admitted without sufficient ability in English to undertake HE study. The sub-committee considered that, overall, admissions procedures were sound, but that clearer guidance and better support should be provided to international students.
9. Degree classifications. There has been considerable debate as to whether the increasing proportion of first and upper second class degrees being awarded represents ‘grade inflation’. The sub-committee considered the work of the Measuring and Recording Student Achievement Group (the Burgess Group). It endorsed the Burgess Group’s findings that the traditional degree classification system is no longer fit for purpose – though this is a view of how results are presented, not on degree standards themselves – and the continuing work on the Higher Education Achievement Report.
10. Plagiarism. Media reports have suggested that plagiarism in higher education is widespread and increasing. Internet usage and the move away from reliance on traditional examinations as an exclusive assessment method have clearly had an effect. However, the sub-committee considered that while plagiarism cannot be regulated out of existence, there is a verifiable commitment to reducing its incidence to an absolute minimum. The sub-committee believed that better publicity for the effective work being undertaken to prevent and counteract plagiarism within institutions and in the wider HE sector would do much to alleviate public concerns.
11. External examiners. The external examiner system is often held up as a means of ensuring comparability of standards and good practice. However, individual examiners’ experience is limited to the organisations in which they have worked, so it is arguable whether they can provide such reassurance at national level. Allegations have been made of institutions pressurising external examiners to pass students, or simply ignoring their advice. In addition, the external examiner's role is not well understood by the wider public. The sub-committee recommends a review of the external examiner system. This should consider clarification of the examiner’s role and the provision of an independent recourse for examiners to raise concerns, along with greater scrutiny of external examiners' views during institutional audits.
12. Assessment and feedback. A number of reports have identified assessment as a challenging area for the HE sector, particularly as student numbers increase. Student surveys also regularly identify the need to improve the type and amount of feedback given to students. The sub-committee recommends that institutions should continue to improve and promote their assessment systems and criteria as well as their processes for offering formative feedback, and make sure that students understand the processes.
13. Contact time and learning hours. There is increasing debate over whether UK HE students receive fewer contact hours and undertake less study time than those in other countries. The sub-committee considered that quantity of teaching time does not necessarily equate with the quality of teaching or learning, and a diversity of approaches is desirable. However, students entering UK HE would clearly benefit from further guidance on what to expect from their experience, of which independent, self-guided learning is a crucial part. Institutions also clearly need to provide information in an appropriate common format. This should cover the nature and amount of staff contact that students may expect, the nature of the learning effort expected, the time this will take, and the academic support likely to be available. Institutions should also publicise a clear rationale for the contact hours required for individual programmes, and explain how these relate to other resources.
14. Institutional audit method. The sub-committee considered whether the existing audit method was adequate for meeting HEFCE’s statutory requirements. Institutional audit has many strengths and has successfully identified problems in a few institutions. However, it provides very broad judgements (contrasted with a high level of technical detail in audit reports), which are of limited use for a wider audience. Locking the method into a six-year cycle also means that it lacks flexibility, as significant changes cannot be made during this time, and nor can a particular sector-wide 'theme' of concern be investigated should the need arise. The sub-committee considered that the current audit method, if continued, will not provide HEFCE with sufficient evidence to fulfil its statutory duty. It proposed some revisions for HEFCE to consider with the representative bodies and QAA.
15. Public information. The sub-committee considered that two main types of information should be published: information about quality indicators and similar comparable information, which HEFCE specifically requires to fulfil its statutory duty; and information about the wider student experience, aimed at a public audience, which needs to be clearly formulated and widely accessible. The data published on the Unistats web-site may not always fulfil either role, although the National Student Survey is valuable and has achieved wide recognition. The sub-committee recommends a full review of information needs and a common approach to publishing key institutional information, including on institutions’ own web-sites.
16. The sub-committee does not consider there to be a systemic failure in quality in English HE. However, challenges to quality and standards are serious issues and the sector cannot be complacent. The Quality Assurance Framework needs revising, to provide HEFCE with continued reassurance that its statutory duty is being fulfilled, and to respond more flexibly to sector trends. The way in which external examiners are used needs reviewing to ensure that the system contributes effectively to maintaining public confidence in quality and standards. The greatest need, however, is for more accessible public information about quality and standards, and about the wider student experience. This will be a challenge for HEFCE and for institutions, but will put the sector on a firmer footing to meet future challenges and show more transparency in how it is accountable.
17. Many of the sub-committee's recommendations require action from institutions, in particular producing better, clearer guidance about various aspects of their provision and quality assurance systems. Institutions should consider how they might best address these recommendations.