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HEFCE closed at the end of March 2018. The information on this website is historical and is no longer maintained.

Many of HEFCE's functions will be continued by the Office for Students, the new regulator of higher education in England, and Research England, the new council within UK Research and Innovation.

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The consultation is now closed.

Executive summary


1. This publication consults on the development of a more risk-based approach to the quality assurance of higher education in England.

Key points

2. In the English higher education White Paper, Students at the Heart of the System published by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) in June 2011, the Government stated that it wished to introduce a risk-based approach to quality assurance, ‘focussing Quality Assurance Agency effort where it will have the most impact and giving students power to hold universities to account’.

3. This consultation, drafted with the support of the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA), sets out proposals for the further development of the quality assurance system, in particular Institutional Review in England. The aim of the proposed approach is to put the interests of students first, both undergraduate and postgraduate and to contribute to a reduction in the external regulation of those higher education providers with an effective track record of assuring quality and standards. We propose that in future the nature, frequency and intensity of external quality assurance will be guided by each higher education provider’s record in quality assurance and the nature of its provision. This approach will be applied transparently in accordance with established principles of better regulation (see paragraph 53).

4. This more risk-based approach will apply to the wider quality assurance system and not simply to institutional external review. All providers with access to public funding and others who subscribe to the QAA will fall within the remit of this approach. Institutional Review will remain as the basis of the new system, though the method will be revised.

5. We intend that the move to a more risk-based approach will incorporate a more rigorous process for instigating QAA investigations outside the regular, but changed programme of reviews.

6. From its launch in 2011-12, Institutional Review has had a stronger emphasis on enhancement activities. This consultation seeks views on how these sector-wide activities may be continued and given greater prominence.            

7. We are consulting on:

  • how providers’ engagement with the quality assurance system would vary in nature, frequency and/or intensity, depending on their track record on quality assurance and the profile of their provision
  • how providers would undergo a core Institutional Review and additional Institutional Review modules, for example, on collaborative provision, if it is offered in their portfolio
  • whether and how the QAA should investigate the possible reduction or streamlining of its engagement during review with those providers which have a substantial proportion of their provision accredited by professional, statutory and regulatory bodies (PSRBs)
  • how HEFCE would put in place a more rigorous and robust process for instigating ‘out-of-cycle’ QAA investigations, when concerns about quality and standards arise between formal reviews.

8. We are also making proposals to ensure that:

  • the enhancement element of review is further strengthened
  • student engagement in quality assurance and enhancement processes is further promoted.

We will update our policy for dealing with unsatisfactory quality in institutions (HEFCE 2011/36), in the light of decisions taken as a result of this consultation.

9. This consultation formally applies to England only. The Department for Employment and Learning (Northern Ireland) (DEL) will determine whether to apply any policy changes to the quality assurance process in universities in Northern Ireland as it takes forward its new strategy: Graduating to Success: A Higher Education Strategy for Northern Ireland’. We have, however, addressed this consultation to the higher education sector in Northern Ireland and while the of views of such institutions will be welcomed, they may not be included in the formal analysis of responses to avoid the risk that they influence a system in which they do not ultimately participate.

10. We are grateful to the QAA for contributing its expertise in enabling us to make these proposals. The proposals, however, are our own and have been developed to enable us to exercise our statutory duty to secure the assessment of the quality of higher education in publicly funded institutions (see paragraph 47). The outcomes of the consultation will form the basis of guidance to the QAA so that it can consult on, and take forward detailed aspects of the future approach.

11. All enquiries should be directed to HEFCE, e-mail

Action required

12. Responses to this consultation should be made online by Tuesday 31 July 2012 using the online form which can be accessed alongside this document at

13. This is an open consultation and we welcome views from anyone with an interest in the quality assurance and the quality enhancement of higher education. We particularly encourage responses from students.


Download the Risk-based approach to quality assurance: consultation as PDF (469 KB)Download the Risk-based approach to quality assurance: consultation as MS Word (673 KB)

Note that the first sentence of paragraph 47 was changed on 29 May 2012 to more accurately reflect HEFCE’s statutory responsibility.

Download the Risk-based approach to quality assurance: consultation as PDF (469 KB)Download the Risk-based approach to quality assurance: consultation as MS Word (673 KB)

Note that the first sentence of paragraph 47 was changed on 29 May 2012 to more accurately reflect HEFCE’s statutory responsibility.

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Date: 8 May 2012

Ref: HEFCE 2012/11

To: Heads of HEFCE-funded higher education institutions, Heads of HEFCE-funded further education colleges
All other subscribers to the QAA in England

Of interest to those
responsible for:

Staff responsible for quality assurance, quality enhancement and the student experience (England and Northern Ireland)

Planning, Governing bodies and Academic boards

Student union officers and student representatives

Department for Employment and Learning (NI) staff responsible for quality assurance of higher education in Northern Ireland

Heads of universities in Northern Ireland

Alternative providers of higher education

Other organisations with an interest in the quality assurance of higher education, including employer bodies, professional, statutory and regulatory bodies (PSRBs), Department of Health, the UK Border Agency and other government stakeholders

Enquiries should be directed to:

Tish Bourke, tel 0117 931 7219, e-mail