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Dear Vice-Chancellor or Principal

Revised operating model for quality assessment and other updates

1. I am writing with a further update on quality assessment arrangements for 2016-17, and to bring to your attention a number of other issues and developments. 

Revised operating model for quality assessment: Annual Provider Review 2016-17

2. My letter ‘Update on quality assessment revised operating model and proposed changes to health funding’ (HEFCE Circular letter 13/2016) outlined recent developments and next steps for the implementation of the Revised operating model for quality assessment in England (HEFCE 2016/03), which we published in March 2016 following an extensive period of consultation with the sector, students and other stakeholders on future approaches to quality assessment.

3. Responses to the consultation strongly endorsed the principles underpinning the revised model (see ‘Future approaches to quality assessment in England, Wales and Northern Ireland: Analysis of responses to consultation’, HEFCE 2015/30). The model also reflects and responds to feedback on aspects of implementation, in particular the proposals on the external examining system and the role of governing bodies.

4. As you know, the revised approach is designed to be proportionate and risk-based. It is grounded in the mission and context of an individual university or college, and is focused on promoting continuous improvement and innovation in the areas that matter to students. It incorporates strong elements of externality, and aims to reduce bureaucracy and burden on providers. It underpins the Government’s planned reforms to higher education, as part of a single, coherent quality assessment system alongside the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).

5. The Annual Provider Review will be the core mechanism for assessing quality in low-risk providers. It builds on existing HEFCE data analysis and assurance arrangements, and will be managed by HEFCE (and, subject to Parliament, by the future Office for Students) in England, and by the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland.

6. For providers that are new or recent entrants to the sector, the Annual Provider Review will be complemented by a developmental period of enhanced scrutiny, including streamlined review visits at entry and at the end of the developmental period conducted by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education.

7. The 2016-17 review will take place this autumn. You will not be required to provide a submission or additional information for the review. Following the review we will write to you and to the chair of your governing body in spring 2017 to share our quality judgement. This will reflect one of three outcomes: ‘meets requirements’, ‘meets requirements with conditions’, or ‘pending further investigation’ as explained in the short guide ’Revised operating model for quality assessment: Arrangements from 2016-17’, available at We will do this through the existing risk letter that we send to the higher education institutions we fund, and through a quality letter for the further education institutions we fund. We will only be in further touch with you where the review suggests evidence of a serious problem which requires further investigation. We will publish the outcomes of your review on the Register of Higher Education Providers.

8. We will write to you in the autumn with further information about the process. In the meantime, the short guide summarises the review arrangements, and will be of interest to your colleagues with responsibility for quality assessment. We are working closely with those institutions that are subject to the transition arrangements and will already be familiar with the information in the guide.

Teaching Excellence Framework: implementation of Year 2

9. HEFCE has been commissioned to manage implementation of Year 2 of the TEF, according to the specification that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills originally, and now the Department for Education, have been developing through the technical consultation that was published in May. The consultation, which closed earlier this month, attracted a good number of responses from across the sector. The Department for Education is analysing the responses and expects to publish the outcomes in September.

10. There was an excellent response to the call for TEF panel member and assessor applicants. We have reviewed over 1,200 applications, and expect to announce appointments in September.

11. We have established a TEF Project Board, with representation from the Department for Education, the Quality Assurance Agency, the National Union of Students and the sector, to oversee implementation of Year 2. We have established TEF contacts at each institution and will provide them with further updates, including invitations to a series of briefing events in the autumn.

Independent review of the Research Excellence Framework 

12. We welcome the findings of Lord Stern’s independent review of the Research Excellence Framework (REF)and its recognition of the importance of the REF in assessing the quality of research, providing accountability and benchmarking, and supporting strategic decision-making nationally as well as in institutions.

13. The review has provided clear principles and a direction of travel. We support its finding that a substantial or radical reinvention of the REF is not needed and would have increased uncertainty, workload and burden. 

14. The Government and the devolved administrations will now need to consider the report and make their views known on next steps. The UK higher education funding bodies will also carefully consider the recommendations. Subject to the views of our respective ministers, we intend to launch a consultation as soon as possible and before the end of 2016.

Quality-related research Research Degree Programme supervision funding methodology

15. For 2017-18 funding onwards we intend our methodology for Quality-related Research (QR) Research Degree Programme (RDP) supervision funding to take account of additional data available to us on postgraduate research students on formal collaborative research programmes.

16. In the past, individual postgraduate research students were returned to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) Student Record by only one higher education institution for the duration of their programme, irrespective of any collaborative supervisory arrangements. The additional data available in the 2015-16 HESA Student Record will enable us to track these students across institutions and, for the first time, split the corresponding QR RDP supervision funding across the collaborating institutions in cases where these institutions have reported a formal handover of the student.

17. To reduce the complexity of implementing this change and auditing the associated data, we are considering making a further change to the methodology. It is proposed that the full-time equivalence of full-time students in years 1 to 3 of their postgraduate research study (or years 1 to 6 for part-time students) is used to provide the eligible volume. This approach would need only a single year of HESA data to identify the eligible volume, and would retain the principle of limiting the eligible volume to 3.0 full-time equivalent per student. We are currently investigating this approach and are considering further advice using informal discussions with the sector. Subject to these discussions and the approval of the HEFCE Board, we intend to implement it in our web facility for 2015-16 HESA funding and monitoring data, and for 2017-18’s (and future years’) QR RDP supervision funding.

Degree Apprenticeship Development Fund 

18. We will shortly be contacting those institutions that have been successful in their application for funding from phase 1 of the Degree Apprenticeship Development Fund, which was targeted on the delivery of programmes from September 2017. This phase of the fund was oversubscribed by more than five times the available funding, and while this has meant that some very good bids were unfortunately not able to receive funding, we are reassured that this demonstrates appetite for engagement in the degree apprenticeship agenda on the part of higher education providers. The call for phase 2 of the fund will therefore be launched in the new academic year on a similar basis, and will support delivery of degree apprenticeships from September 2018.

Healthcare education funding changes

19. Over the last few months HEFCE has been fully engaged with colleagues in the Department of Health working on the transfer of funding to be implemented following the Department of Health consultation on reforms to healthcare education funding. We are engaging with the sector to understand the particular healthcare education challenges along with any subject-specific issues, and we will work hard to ensure a smooth transition. We expect to publish a review of teaching costs in the healthcare field in the autumn.

Information for students

20. Following the UK higher education funding bodies’ review of student information and consultation in 2015, we will be publishing outcomes from the consultation in early August. This includes the response we received to our proposals for changes to the National Student Survey (NSS), and to the Unistats website and the Key Information Set, from 2017. We are continuing to undertake testing of changes to the NSS and will write to the sector in early September about final arrangements for NSS 2017 including the new questionnaire. We will be publishing details of changes to the Unistats data collection by the end of August 2016.

Calls for learning and teaching proposals to the Catalyst Fund

21. We are about to launch two related but distinctive calls for proposals to support innovation in learning and teaching. The first is focused on small-scale innovations designed to test ‘what works’ in a structured manner. The second aims to facilitate collaborative uptake of proven innovations on a larger scale.


22. Since August last year, when HEFCE took on responsibility for monitoring implementation of the new Prevent duty, we have seen constructive engagement across the sector, with institutions working together and with HEFCE to develop appropriate responses and share good practice. This effort has been recognised positively by Government. By October we will have completed the first stage of our monitoring work and will publish a report on sector-level outcomes, issues, and good practice. We will also, at that time, set out more detail about the next phase of monitoring.

Post-referendum issues

23. Following the vote for the UK to leave the European Union (EU), we have been taking soundings on the implications for higher education from the sector, the major banks and investment bodies, and other stakeholders. We are providing regular advice and updates to the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Department for Education and HM Treasury, and, through them, to the new Department for Exiting the European Union, on your initial concerns and early priorities on a range of issues, including:

  • access to European research grants and facilities
  • research collaboration with European partners
  • proposals in the pipeline for EU structural funds
  • EU student recruitment and student mobility programmes
  • recruitment and retention of EU staff
  • countering perceptions that the UK is not welcoming to EU and international students and staff.

24. We will continue to advise Government on EU exit issues, and their impact on higher education, over the coming months and as negotiating positions begin to crystallise.

Machinery of government changes and higher education reform programme

25. Following the recent changes to the machinery of government we are now reporting through the Department for Education but working equally with the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on research and knowledge exchange agendas. As you would expect, there is close collaboration with ministers and officials to support the passage of the Higher Education and Research Bill through Parliament, and on the establishment of the proposed Office for Students and UK Research and Innovation.

26. All of us at HEFCE and the HEFCE Board have greatly appreciated your support to our work over the past year, and look forward to continuing engagement in 2016-17.

Yours sincerely

Professor Madeleine Atkins

Chief Executive


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Date: 29 July 2016

Ref: Circular letter 18/2016

To: Heads of HEFCE-funded further education colleges, Heads of HEFCE-funded higher education institutions

Of interest to those
responsible for:

Senior management; Finance and planning; Quality assessment and assurance; Academic governance; the Research Excellence Framework; Postgraduate education; Vocational education, work placements and employability; Access and student success; Student experience and engagement; Student data; Learning and teaching; The Prevent duty

Enquiries should be directed to:

Chief Executive’s office (tel 0117 931 7095, email