Part 1 - Orientation
Critical agendas in the Quality landscape
The field of Quality Assurance (QA) and Quality Enhancement (QE) in Higher Education operates at several levels, in line with formal policy frameworks and priorities as well as changing theories of learning. In the time frame of this project, the UK Higher Education sector was experiencing several significant shifts in the landscape around curriculum quality, with particular attention to:
- Revision of the ‘academic infrastructure’ - the formal Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) frameworks underpinning the curriculum – to generate the UK Quality Code for Higher Education. This process began in 2010, aiming to unify the qualifications framework, subject level benchmarks, programme specifications and codes of practice, and to ensure that definitions of quality and standards are well understood and more widely used by a growing range of audiences, stakeholders and providers.
- New methods for institutional quality audit, implemented for all periodic audit processes in UK Higher Education institutions from 2011 onwards. The changes embraced more flexibility as well as responsiveness to areas of public concern through the inclusion of a new thematic component in audit processes, with themes to be set annually by the Quality in Higher Education Group. Notably, all institutional audits from 2011 onwards now include the use of student assessors as members of audit teams (which is common practice in Scotland and began in England in 2009).
- Changing understandings of quality and of the range of stakeholder opinions that will inform future quality definitions, including preparation and consultation regarding the proposed move to ‘risk-based’ quality assessment in the sector, instead of the existing practice of regular inspections. These changes are taking shape in an era of increasing competition among Higher Education providers, ushered in by the replacement of publicly-funded tuition with an education landscape supported by higher tuition fees and populated by new private and ‘for-profit’ providers.
In addition to these large scale shifts in the official quality frameworks and their parameters, agencies and staff involved in UK Higher Education have also been responding to specific quality agendas, including:
- National review of the external examining processes reported in 2011 (Quality Assurance Agency/Universities UK/GuildHE)
- Student information – growing importance of the National Student Survey plus 2012 release of the Key Information Set for each HE institution via the Unistats website
- Growth of Further Education providers offering HE programmes and decisions regarding future quality review processes in this area from 2012
- Increased focus on the student experience and introduction of the HE Achievement Report, following the recommendations of the Burgess report in 2007
- Changes to enhancement support – restructure of the Higher Education Academy and closure of the UK Subject Centre network, plus completion of national initiatives under the Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and the Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning.
These changes in relation to the understanding and improvement of quality in Higher Education are reshaping sector views about what matters most – and to whom – in learning and teaching quality. They recognize the growing diversity of providers now operating in the sector and the increasing importance of the perspectives of learners being embedded in quality systems, as their opinions gain greater power.
Why Quality Matters for EfS
In EfS there are several important connections with this changing quality landscape and they provide the context in which EfS can frame its most appropriate modes of engagement with the curriculum:
- The growing emphasis on the overall student experience provides a critical point of connection for EfS, which places importance on the entire culture and environment for learning. For EfS this enables a focus not just on the content of the formal curriculum, but on institutional approaches to learning and teaching as well as informal learning initiatives in the broader university experience.
- The general emphasis in current quality discourse and policy towards greater inclusion of student perspectives will provide an interesting opportunity for EfS. The perceived interest of students in improving their professional prospects and in engaging with ‘real-world’ issues is also prioritised in EfS and this is an arena in which EfS should demonstrate its relevance and applicability.
- The increasing diversity of student populations, with learners from a wider range of backgrounds as well as the internationalisation of the sector, presents important issues that EfS can respond to. With its focus on responsibility and citizenship, inclusivity and equality, as well as its global outlook, the field of EfS should be ideally placed to support the sector in responding to these needs.
- The continual attention to cross-cutting education themes in the sector, with implications for all faculties, departments and subjects in Higher Education institutions. This has been recognised by the QAA in developing its Learning and Teaching chapter within the UK Quality Code for Higher Education, which includes EfS in its list of themes with sector-wide educational importance.
As Higher Education develops responses to these quality agendas, the approaches needed are likely to involve effective connections to be made between corporate institutional planning and academic development agendas. This inevitably raises issues in terms of leadership and management, as the tensions at these intersections are explored, in the effort to ensure quality whilst also protecting innovation.
Members of the project’s Expert Advisory Board comment on the relevance and potential of EfS in the UK quality assurance landscape:
- Speaker 1: Andrew Smith (Head of Estates and Sustainable Development, HEFCE) comments on importance of the project in looking for appropriate ways to connect EfS with the UK quality mechanism
- Speaker 2: Jane Davidson (Director, INSPIRE, University of Wales Trinity St David) explains the need for strategic themes like sustainability to be reflected through institutional quality processes
- Speaker 3: Virginia Isaac (Director, Sustainable Direction) considers the potential future for EfS as part of the formal quality audit mechanism in HE, noting the steps taken by OFSTED in this area