Established in 1997, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA)
works to ensure that higher education qualifications in the United Kingdom
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern IrelandIn the United Kingdom and Dependencies, other languages have been officially recognised as legitimate autochthonous languages under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages...
are of a sound standard. It protects the public interest by checking how universities and colleges maintain their academic standards
Academic standards are the benchmarks of quality and excellence in education such as the rigour of curricula and the difficulty of examinations...
and quality. It also regulates the Access to Higher Education Diploma - a qualification that enables individuals without A-levels or the usual equivalent to enter higher education.
QAA is a not-for-profit company limited by guarantee operating under the legal jurisdiction of England, and a charity registered in England and Wales and in Scotland. It is not an accrediting body and does not hold a list of recognised universities or colleges. This is held currently by the UK Government's Department for Business, Innovation and Skills
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is a ministerial department of the United Kingdom Government created on 5 June 2009 by the merger of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform .-Ministers:The BIS...
(BIS). The Chief Executive since October 2009 has been Anthony McClaran, who was previously Chief Executive of UCAS
The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service is the British admission service for students applying to university and college. UCAS is primarily funded by students who pay a fee when they apply and a capitation fee from universities for each student they accept..-Location:UCAS is based near...
for six years. QAA is based in Gloucester with QAA Scotland in Glasgow.
In the UK the primary responsibility for academic standards and quality rests with individual universities and colleges, each of which has its own internal quality assurance procedures. QAA carries out external reviews and audits by visiting the universities and colleges and reporting on how well they meet their responsibilities. Reports also identify good practice and make recommendations for improvement.
QAA provides guidance and tools for setting and describing academic standards and for maintaining and improving the effectiveness of the institutions' own quality assurance processes. This is known as the Academic Infrastructure (see 3.2). QAA also aims to protect the student interest, involving students in its review work and listening to the student voice.
What are academic standards and quality?
There is no internationally recognised definition of academic standards and quality in higher education. For its purposes QAA uses the following definitions. Academic standards describe the level of achievement that a student has to reach to gain an academic award (for example, a degree). They should be at a broadly similar basic level across the UK (though some institutions may require standards higher than this basic level). Academic quality describes how well the learning opportunities available to students help them to achieve their award. It is about making sure that appropriate and effective teaching, support, assessment and learning opportunities are provided. Notes of the qualified carry till ended.
Around one third of QAA's funding is by annual subscription from UK universities and colleges; two thirds come from the public sector through contracts with the higher education funding bodies and government departments. In the aftermath of the Browne Review, published in October 2010, further changes to funding or structure are possible, but none has been announced at time of writing.
QAA is an independent body, and its objects and constitution are set out in its Memorandum and Articles of Association. The company's members are: Universities Scotland, Universities UK
Universities UK began life as the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the United Kingdom in the nineteenth century when there were informal meetings involving Vice-Chancellors of a number of universities and Principals of university colleges...
(UUK), Higher Education Wales (HEW) and GuildHE
GuildHE, formerly the Standing Conference of Principals , is a British membership organisation representing the heads of higher education institutions - from some of the most recently designated universities and university colleges, specialist colleges and other bodies providing higher education...
One of QAA's core functions is to carry out reviews and audits of how universities and other higher education providers maintain the quality of the learning opportunities they offer to students, and the academic standards of the awards they make. QAA reports publicly on its findings.
QAA currently uses four main review methods in the UK:
- Institutional audit (England and Northern Ireland - higher education institutions only; consultation is underway with a view to replacing this method with a revised form of Institutional review)
- Institutional review (Wales - higher education institutions only)
- Enhancement-led institutional review (Scotland - higher education institutions only)
- Integrated quality and enhancement review (England - further education colleges offering higher education programmes).
QAA also uses the following additional review methods:
- Collaborative provision audit (UK and other countries - collaborative partnerships between higher education institutions that lead to the award of a UK degree)
- Developmental review (Wales - further education colleges awarding degrees or equivalent; this method was also used in Northern Ireland during the academic year 2008-09).
QAA’s review methods operate at the level of whole institutions and do not generally look at individual courses or programmes of study. The judgements arrived at are an expression of the confidence that QAA has in the institution’s current and future management of its academic quality and standards and of the learning opportunities it offers. All QAA’s review reports are available on its website.
QAA and the UK higher education sector have worked together to develop the Academic Infrastructure, which is a set of UK-wide agreed guidelines and reference points for higher education. The Academic Infrastructure is key to the assurance of quality and standards across UK higher education. It has been re-evaluated in 2009-10, leading to a consultation with the higher education sector during the winter of 2010-11.
At time of writing the Academic Infrastructure comprises four main elements:
Frameworks for higher education qualifications
These describe the levels of achievement and attributes represented by the main qualification titles, such as bachelor's degree with honours, or master's degree. There are two frameworks - one for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and one for Scotland. Both frameworks have been certified as being compliant with the Framework for Qualifications of the European Higher Education Area (part of the Bologna Process
The purpose of the Bologna Process is the creation of the European Higher Education Area by making academic degree standards and quality assurance standards more comparable and compatible throughout Europe, in particular under the Lisbon Recognition Convention...
Subject benchmark statements
These state the broad expectations about degree standards in particular subjects. Universities are responsible for setting their own curricula; benchmark statements assist academic staff in course design, delivery and review. They describe what can be expected of a graduate in terms of broad subject coverage and the techniques and skills gained at first degree (and sometimes master's) level in a subject.
Each university and higher education college publishes information about its programmes or courses. Each of these specifications gives information about what students can expect from a programme (such as the curriculum structure and assessment), and what knowledge, understanding, skills and other attributes a student will have developed on successful completion of the programme.
The Code of practice for the assurance of academic quality and standards in higher education
The Code of practice for the assurance of academic quality and standards in higher education
has 10 sections and offers guidelines for universities and colleges on good practice in the management of academic standards and quality.
QAA helps institutions enhance the management of their quality and standards by systematic analysis of audit and review reports to identify themes of good practice and difficulties commonly encountered, with findings published to stimulate discussion and improvement. These publications can be found on the QAA website.
Working with students
QAA believes that students should be directly involved in the higher education sector's approaches to quality assurance and enhancement. QAA includes student members on its review teams. QAA also works with the National Union of Students (NUS), Universities UK and GuildHE to organise events to support students’ unions in their preparations for Institutional audit.
QAA has included a student member on its Board of Directors since February 2008, and has a dedicated student portal on its website.
QAA takes a leading role in international developments in standards and quality, and is a full member of the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education
The European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education came into being in 2000 as the European Network for Quality Assurance in Higher Education. In 2004 it was transformed from a network into an association....
(ENQA, standing for European Network of Quality Assurance). QAA had its first ENQA membership review in April 2008. The review team reported that it was 'consistently impressed by the calibre and professionalism of all those contributing to the work of QAA in maintaining quality and standards across HE in the UK'.
Access to HE
The Access to HE Diploma enables adults without other qualifications such as A levels to progress to higher education. Regulated by QAA, the Access to HE qualification is widely recognised by UK universities and colleges. There are over 1,500 different courses leading to the Access to HE Diploma. Access Validating Agencies (AVAs) validate and review these courses, and award the Access to HE qualification to successful students. QAA licenses and monitors the work of the AVAs, and publishes information about Access to HE
Degree awarding powers and university title
QAA advises governments on the merits of applications for degree awarding powers or university title. It is illegal for a body to award, or claim to award, a UK degree, or to call itself a UK university, unless it is authorised to do so by the UK Government.
Complaints in higher education
QAA has no remit or powers to become involved with individual complaints by staff or students, or any other personal grievances against higher education providers.
However, in order to maintain confidence in the value of degrees, QAA has taken steps to ensure that there is a clearer mechanism through which individuals as well as organisations are able to alert QAA when they feel that academic standards are being jeopardised.
The Causes for Concern scheme was implemented in England and Wales in 2007-08. Following a review, QAA revised the scheme in October 2010 and adopted a number of changes. It was renamed 'Concerns about standards and quality in higher education,' and the developments include:
- the process for investigating concerns has been streamlined to two stages: initial inquiry and full investigation
- if a concern application reaches a full investigation, a statement detailing the findings will be published on the QAA website
- where appropriate, details of a concern application will be investigated through QAA's Institutional audit or review
- concerns may now be raised about subscribing higher education institutions in Northern Ireland
- the scheme has been extended to include concerns about systemic risks identified through QAA's work or by other organisations
- the subject of the concern will be notified in all cases, regardless of whether QAA can investigate. QAA may also pass information on to other relevant organisations.
Equivalent procedures were put in place for Scotland in October 2008, known as the Protocol for managing potential risks to quality and academic standards. The Protocol will be reviewed as part of the wider consideration being given to the Quality Enhancement Framework in Scotland from January 2011.
The creation of QAA was a culmination of a decade's worth of reform in the quality assurance of UK higher education. The Joint Planning Group for Quality Assurance in Higher Education recommended in 1996 that the then two streams of quality assurance - subject review and institutional audit - should be brought together into a single body for the first time. This provided the blueprint for a single quality assurance agency (QAA) to be established in April 1997.
The Dearing Report
The Dearing Report, formally known as the reports of the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education is a series of major reports into the future of Higher Education in the United Kingdom, published in 1997. The report was commissioned by the UK government and was the largest review of...
published later in 1997 expanded QAA’s agenda beyond carrying out assessments and audits to include the provision of public information on quality assurance; verification of standards; creation of a higher education qualifications framework; development of a code of practice; provision of subject benchmark information; and the creation of a pool of external examiners. Most of these proposals were adopted by the universities and higher education colleges, and QAA's position as the UK's sole agency with responsibility for the assurance and enhancement of the quality and standards of higher education was consolidated.
Between 1997 and 2001 QAA continued operating both subject reviews and academic audits and developed most of the Dearing proposals, including the elements of the Academic Infrastructure and a new, UK-wide review process, to be called Academic review. This was to have comprised elements of both subject review and institutional audit and envisaged a gradual transition from the former to the latter.
In 2001, despite the fact that there had been general acceptance of the Academic review proposal across the UK and QAA had already begun to use the process in Scotland, a number of English universities complained to the Government that this new approach did not meet their demands for a lighter burden of external quality assurance. As a result, the Government declared publicly that there would be a reduction in the volume of reviewing undertaken by QAA. The Scottish and Welsh higher education authorities responded by disengaging from the UK-wide scheme and setting up their own national arrangements. In England, HEFCE, the bodies representing higher education institutions (Universities UK and GuildHE) and QAA, devised a new quality assurance approach known as Institutional audit, grounded in the academic quality audit method used by QAA and its predecessors since 1991. QAA Scotland developed the Enhancement-led institutional review (ELIR) procedure, and in Wales the method known as Institutional review was established. Northern Ireland followed England and adopted the modified Institutional audit process. QAA remained the organisation charged with developing and undertaking these activities.
As part of the 2001 agreement between the key stakeholders about the future of external quality assurance in England, it was agreed that there should be a transitional period of three years (2002 to 2005) when all English higher education institutions should be audited using the new method. Thereafter audits would take place on a six-yearly cycle. In the years before the one in which they were to be audited, institutions had a small number of 'developmental engagements' with QAA - unpublished, subject-based reviews for the purposes of enhancing internal institutional quality assurance cultures. The English 'transitional period' institutional audit method included 'discipline audit trails' (DATs), selective subject-based enquiries which enabled a phased reduction of the subject focus of QAA reviews.
In 2005 a revised 'steady-state' Institutional audit model was developed and adopted with the agreement of the representative bodies and HEFCE. This removed the DATs, thereby freeing time in the audit process to explore a broader range of topics and themes. This model is currently in use on a six-year cycle that will be completed in 2011.
Criticism and reform
In the summer of 2008, following a lecture given by Professor Geoffrey Alderman at the University of Buckingham, an urgent parliamentary inquiry was ordered into his allegations (made in the lecture) concerning the decline of academic standards in British higher education and the part played by the Quality Assurance Agency in that decline. At that parliamentary inquiry (17 July 2008) the chairman of the House of Commons’ Select Committee on Universities condemned the Agency as ‘a toothless old dog’ and declared that the British degree classification system had ‘descended into farce.’ Alderman himself gave evidence to the Select Committee, whose report (2 August 2009) amounted to a strong endorsement of his views.
Since the appointment of a new Chief Executive in October 2009, measures have been put in place to strengthen QAA's reputation for upholding standards and identifying best practice in higher education. There is a strong agenda to increase student participation and public engagement, with an emphasis on more accessible information, a less formal style of reporting and a presence in social media. These measures are designed to ensure that QAA successfully maintains and develops its role in safeguarding academic standards on behalf of all stakeholders in higher education and wider society.