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Dear Vice-Chancellor or Principal and President of the National Union of Students

Updating HEFCE’s policy for addressing unsatisfactory quality in institutions

1. This letter accompanies a draft revision of HEFCE’s policy for addressing ‘unsatisfactory quality’ in institutions, as judged by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) through its review method. We are consulting with the sector to seek views on revising the operation of the policy.

2. It is planned that the revised policy will apply from the start of the risk-based Higher Education Review method in 2013-14. It will be invoked when an institution receives a published judgement of ‘does not meet UK expectations’. In our consultation ‘A risk-based approach to quality assurance: Outcomes of consultation and next steps’ (HEFCE 2012/27), we indicated that the unsatisfactory quality policy would need to be updated, and we are now asking for your comments on our proposed updated approach. As far as possible we have kept the essential features of the original policy.

3. HEFCE’s initial policy for addressing unsatisfactory quality in institutions commenced in 2009 (HEFCE 2009/31) and was followed by a supplementary interim update, ‘Policy for addressing unsatisfactory quality in institutions: 2011 update’, (HEFCE 2011/36) to take into account the new review method introduced in 2011-12. The attached draft policy represents a further update aligned with the outcomes from HEFCE 2012/27 and the subsequent QAA consultation on detailed aspects of risk-based review. The policy will in due course be incorporated within the new operating framework for funding and regulating higher education in England. The operating framework sets out the roles of the regulatory bodies, and how they work with all types of higher education provider to ensure accountability for public investment in higher education and to protect the student interest. It will be published on 1 August 2013.

4. Since 2009, HEFCE has had the ability to become directly involved in quality assessment (rather than operating our statutory duty through the QAA) when an institution receives a ‘failing’ judgement. This will continue, although as before the QAA leads prior to this point. We are proposing to continue with a proportionate approach that gives institutions appropriate warning, and time to make adjustments, where the quality of their educational provision falls short. However, we are also being more explicit that the time available for this improvement is strictly limited, to prevent the interests of students being adversely affected.

5. In preparing this draft updated policy we have worked with officers from the QAA, Universities UK, Guild HE, the Association of Colleges and the National Union of Students. It has also been discussed by our Strategic Advisory Committee on Teaching Quality and the Student Experience.  These discussions have helped shape the proposed revised policy.

6. Although we hope that this policy will be used only on rare occasions, it is important that institutions, students and other stakeholders know in advance what the consequences might be if failings in quality remain unaddressed. The attached document sets out a range of actions and possible sanctions to be taken during the process for addressing unsatisfactory quality. However, as it is not possible to devise a policy which will cover all eventualities, the policy indicates that, within broad parameters, each situation will be judged on individual circumstances.

7. The proposed approach is responsive to institutional circumstances, gives greater weight to the student interest while protecting the reputation of individual institutions and the sector as a whole, and is proportionate. It allows two opportunities for institutional recovery before any sanctions are applied, but within limited periods.

8. We seek your comments on the draft proposals for an updated policy, attached at Annex A. Readers may also find it useful to refer to the flowcharts at Annexes B and C while reading the draft policy. We primarily expect comments on the process from the point where HEFCE becomes directly involved, as other changes from the 2009 and 2011 approach have been covered by the consultation referred to in paragraph 2. We are particularly interested in comments about the balance between proportionality and the student interest, and the operation and transparency of the approach.

9. A final draft taking account of your comments will be considered by the HEFCE Board in October 2013, and published by November 2013. When considering responses, we will commit to read, record and analyse the views of every response to this consultation in a consistent manner. Usually, the merit of the arguments made is likely to be given more weight than the number of times the same point is made. Where we have not been able to respond to a significant material issue raised, we will usually explain the reasons for this.

10. Information provided in response to a request, invitation or consultation from HEFCE may be made public, under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act or of an appropriate licence, or through another arrangement. Such information includes text, data and datasets. The Freedom of Information Act gives a public right of access to any information held by a public authority defined within the Act, in this case HEFCE. It applies to information provided by individuals and organisations, for example universities and colleges. HEFCE can refuse to make such information available only in exceptional circumstances. This means that data and information are unlikely to be treated as confidential except in very particular circumstances. Further information about the Act is available at the Information Commissioner’s Office web-site

11. Please e-mail any comments to Zoe Mackey, Higher Education Policy Adviser at HEFCE (uqp@hefce.ac.uk) by 9 July 2013.

Yours sincerely

Sir Alan Langlands

Chief Executive

Date: 28 May 2013

Ref: Circular letter 15/2013

To: Heads of HEFCE-funded further education colleges, Heads of HEFCE-funded higher education institutions
Heads of HEFCE-funded sixth-form colleges, National Union of Students

Of interest to those
responsible for:

Quality assurance

Enquiries should be directed to:

Zoe Mackey, tel 0117 931 7078, e-mail uqp@hefce.ac.uk