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  • Executive summary
  • Background
  • Results of consultation
  • Next steps
  • Annex A Question-by-question analysis
  • Annex B Revised principles and objectives for quality assurance in England and Northern Ireland
  • Annex C List of abbreviations

Executive summary


1. This document sets out the principles and objectives that will apply to the quality assurance system for higher education in England and Northern Ireland from 2011-12. It also sets out the broad characteristics of the institutional audit method to be used in higher education institutions (HEIs) in England and Northern Ireland from 2011-12. This document has been agreed by the representative bodies for higher education (Universities UK (UUK) and GuildHE) and funders (HEFCE and the Department for Employment and Learning (in Northern Ireland)(DEL)), with the advice and guidance of the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA).

2. This document takes full account of the responses made to the joint UUK/GuildHE/HEFCE/DEL consultation 'Future arrangements for quality assurance in England and Northern Ireland' (HEFCE 2009/47), which are summarised in Annex A.

Key points

3. The sponsoring bodies (HEFCE, DEL, UUK, GuildHE) are committed to a quality assurance system that is accountable, rigorous, transparent, flexible, responsive and public-facing. We want to tackle concerns about quality and standards and make real changes to improve the student experience and the reputation of higher education.

4. We received very full responses to the consultation, from a wide range of stakeholders including higher education institutions, student unions, further education colleges and other interested parties.

5. Broadly, the majority of respondents agreed to the proposals set out in the consultation. However, there were significant areas of concern that warranted further consideration in the light of responses, and a number of areas requiring further clarification or adjustment. Taking these into account, we will proceed with arrangements for the quality assurance system to apply from 2011-12 as follows.

Principles and objectives of the quality assurance system

6. The principles and objectives set out in Annex B will apply to the quality assurance system from 2011-12. The sponsoring bodies will ask QAA to ensure that the revised institutional audit method to be used from 2011-12 meets these principles and objectives. QAA will also consider the principles and objectives in revising the tools used to maintain quality and standards (the Academic Infrastructure) and the method for reviewing higher education in further education colleges from 2012-13.

7. As far as reasonably possible, the revised system should be of no increased overall level of demand, ensuring that maximum funding is devoted directly to learning and teaching.

Characteristics of institutional audit

8. QAA, in discussion with the HEFCE/UUK/GuildHE Quality in Higher Education Group and the sponsoring bodies as appropriate, will develop an operational description for a more flexible and responsive form of institutional audit. As well as common criteria against which institutions will be judged, all institutional audits will also include a thematic element which will vary from time to time. The results of the themes will not be part of the formal judgement.

9. The sponsoring bodies will ask QAA to ensure that the operational description for institutional audit explains clearly how the process will work, including how changes to the method and choices of theme will be communicated. QAA will discuss the operational description with the sponsoring bodies and with the Quality in HE Group as appropriate. QAA will consult the sector on the operational description in autumn 2010.

10. The Quality in HE Group will take a robust, evidence-based approach to any changes made in the audit method, having due regard for institutional concerns about comparability and demands on resources, and discussing options with QAA as appropriate.

11. The Quality in HE Group will publish a protocol setting out: how 'minor' and 'substantive' changes to the audit method will be selected and implemented; and how themes will be selected, including how institutional mission and focus should/can be taken into account in choosing these.

12. We are committed to full student engagement in the quality assurance process, including through the use of student auditors as full members of audit teams. UUK and GuildHE will continue to work with the National Union of Students, QAA and others to support student engagement.

Maintenance of standards

13. The sponsoring bodies will ask QAA, in discussion with the Quality in HE Group as appropriate, to ensure that the terms 'standards' and 'threshold standards' are clearly defined in all relevant documentation and to consider how institutional audit provides public assurance that threshold standards are being met.

14. QAA and other partners will also ensure that there is appropriate public guidance on how standards in higher education are set and maintained. UUK has published on its web-site an explanation of how standards are maintainedSee note 1.

15. UUK and GuildHE will publish in December 2010 the outcomes of their review of the external examining system. QAA will also publish later this year the results of its evaluation of the Academic Infrastructure.

Judgement terminology

16. The consultation responses agreed that the terminology of QAA judgements on provision could be clearer. The sponsoring bodies will ask QAA to review the terms it uses to describe the level of confidence expressed in audit judgements in the revised audit method, in particular considering the potential negative consequences of any system that can be used for 'league tables'. QAA will also consider how a judgement might be updated, for example once an institution has taken appropriate action to address concerns.

Judgement on information published by institutions

17. Respondents to the consultation agreed that improvements could be made to published information. HEFCE, UUK and GuildHE will publish a consultation on such improvements in autumn 2010, which will be informed by advice from the Higher Education Public Information Steering Group (HEPISG, formerly the Teaching Quality Information/National Student Survey steering group). The HEPISG will carefully consider the responses to the current consultation which relate to public information.

18. The Quality in HE Group and QAA will take respondents' comments and the outcomes of the public information consultation into account in considering how to operate a published judgement in this area.

Summaries of institutional audit reports

19. The sponsoring bodies will ask QAA to produce 'plain English' summaries of institutional audit reports. In doing so QAA should carefully consider the intended audience, taking respondents’ comments and advice from the HEPISG into consideration as appropriate.

Further suggestions

20. In response to a final open question, suggestions for further actions included: improving public understanding of the quality assurance system; developing the role of professional, statutory and regulatory bodies; and clarifying the role of academic staff in quality assurance. These suggestions will be taken forward by the sponsoring bodies, the Quality in HE Group and QAA as the new quality assurance system is developed.

Action required

21. No action is required.


Date: 1 July 2010

Ref: HEFCE 2010/17

Of interest to those
responsible for:

Institutional staff responsible for quality assurance

Student union officers

Funding councils and institutional representative bodies in Scotland and Wales

Other bodies with an interest in quality assurance of higher education, including employer bodies and professional, statutory and regulatory bodies

Enquiries should be directed to:

Emma Creasey at HEFCE, tel 0117 931 7225, e-mail

Helen Gartley at Department for Employment and Learning (in Northern Ireland), tel 028 9025 7751, e-mail

Fiona Hoban at Universities UK, tel 020 7419 5484, e-mail

Helen Bowles at GuildHE, tel 020 7387 7711, e-mail