Guide to Quality and Education for Sustainability in Higher Education

Part 2 - Pathfinder

The Sector Quality System

In order to bring about changes in complex systems, the first step is to understand those systems and how they work. The focus of EfS is on systemic thinking and understanding systems in terms of the whole rather than just the parts. For Higher Education and quality of learning and teaching, this means gaining oversight of the sector level frameworks and the institution level arrangements for developing the curriculum.

To establish the need and the possibilities for change in the Higher Education ‘quality system’ means taking a ‘systems’ perspective on its scope, mode of operation, expert structures and habitual pressures. It also requires understanding of how the two linked sub-systems of quality assurance and quality enhancement can combine and interact, as well as the principles influencing views of ‘good practice’ in curriculum quality.

As a first step, understanding how the quality system is framed and managed at sector level provides the essential context in which individual institutions operate their own internal quality systems.


The Quality Assurance Agency operates the quality assurance system on behalf of the UK Higher Education Funding Councils and its institutional subscribers. Its oversight of quality and standards in recognised Higher Education ‘providers’ uses two main vehicles:

The Higher Education Academy provides expertise, funding and resources to promote and improve the quality of learning and teaching across the sector, working with both individuals and organizations across the UK. It manages the UK Professional Standards Framework which underpins the recognition and approval of professional development schemes for teachers in Higher Education institutions.

In addition to these formal frameworks and guidelines that operate across the sector, many individual professions have regulatory agencies and professional practice frameworks that are reflected in all programmes that award professional status or accreditation. These organizations are known as the Professional and Statutory Regulatory Bodies (PSRBs) and are connected with the QAA at the strategic level through the UK Inter-Professional Group as well as through the individual subject benchmarking groups in each academic and professional area.


Although connected to these overarching frameworks and processes, the Higher Education ‘quality system’ works independently in individual institutions, due to their authority to develop and award qualifications. Higher Education institutions ‘cut the cake’ differently in how they manage quality systems, particularly in the ways that they manage the interplay of quality assurance (QA) and quality enhancement (QE).

In quality systems, tensions can exist between the central and local levels, while the QE function can be harder to strategise and make explicit, as outlined in the joint report Quality Enhancement and Assurance: A Changing Picture. The report, published in 2008 in collaboration between HEA and QAA, pointed to the breadth and variety of understandings related to QE, as well as growth in the trend for institutions to view QE as linked to their corporate and business plans. It noted that:

“Almost all institutions are agreed that the encouragement of innovation is at the heart of enhancement, that innovation thrives when risks can be taken and that innovation, risk and enhancement are therefore intimately bound together.” (p.31)

The result is that institutional quality systems can be fairly complex, bringing together processes that operate across varied programmes and at different levels. For staff without prior experience, there is potential for confusion about how all parts of the systems work, how issues should be addressed in specific parts of the system, how QA and QE aspects connect, and how new issues or themes can be introduced to existing systems. 

Alex Ryan (Project Manager, University of Gloucestershire) reflects on the way the project needed to work at several levels in its institutional project work.