Article previously published in November 2021, by Jana Moehren (Quality Assurance and Compliance Advisor)
New definitions of quality and standards for English Higher Education
The regulator for Higher Education in England, the Office for Students (OfS) has recently consulted on changing some of its conditions of registration relating to quality and standards. It is expected that these changes will soon come into force, but at the time of writing we are still waiting for the final publication. Previously, only minor changes have been made to any OfS proposals following consultation. We can expect the current consultation proposals to be implemented soon.
What are the conditions of registration and why do they matter for us?
The OfS came into place in 2018, replacing HEFCE and the Office for Fair Access, but with a different remit as a regulator. In its regulatory function, the OfS maintains a Register of English Higher Education institutions that meet its Conditions of Registration. Being on the register is a prerequisite to register students and receive fees, receive public grant funding, be granted degree awarding powers and to maintain a student sponsor license for visas for international students.
The conditions of registration cover seven areas of a provider’s activities:
- Access and participation
- Quality, standards and outcomes
- Protecting students’ interests including consumer law
- Financial sustainability
- Provision of information
The conditions have to be met at all times and the OfS continuously monitors whether a provider is at risk of breaching any of them. The conditions that are now revised are the so called ‘B conditions’, related to quality and standards.
Isn’t quality for higher education defined by the Quality Code and the QAA?
No, with the implementation of the OfS, for English providers the role of the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) has changed. The QAA no longer carries out a review every six years, but may only be called to carry out a review when asked by the OfS. One of the main proposals of the changes to the B Conditions is that the UK Quality Code for Higher Education will no longer be mandatory in England. Providers can still follow the Quality Code, and the Code and its Advice and Guidance are still an example of good practice in quality assurance – but to meet the minimum requirements set out in the conditions, it will not matter to the OfS whether or not a provider follows the Quality Code
So, what are the changes?
So far, the B conditions have set out in broad terms the expectations towards the delivery of courses, student experience and student support as well as the value of qualifications. The wording of these conditions has been at a very high level and comparable to what the expectations for quality and standards of the current Quality Code state. These conditions have now been made more detailed and include a few areas of emphasis that the university will need to consider in its quality assurance.
They cover the following areas:
There is an expectation that all delivery provided is up to date, challenging, coherent and effectively delivered. There are implications, for example, for how and how often courses are updated to remain representative of current thinking. There are also expectations on the skills students acquire and the optional subjects available.
Resources, support and student engagement
There is an expectation on providers to ensure that students receive the resources and support to allow them to receive a high quality academic experience, and succeed both during and after their course of study. This expectation includes a renewed focus on courses designed to avoid opportunities for academic misconduct, but also assurance that there are sufficient numbers of appropriately qualified staff to deliver the qualifications and training. There is also an expectation that students are provided with the necessary physical and digital resources, such as hardware and software, and support, including careers support.
Assessment and awards
There is an expectation that students are assessed effectively and reliably and that academic regulation ensure that awards are credible. This again includes an expectation that assessments are designed to avoid opportunities for academic misconduct, but also that the use of English language is assessed. A recent publication from the OfS about the need for providers to be rigorous in the assessment of grammar, spelling and punctuation in the use of English language in assessments that underpins this expectation. It is also expected that students will receive timely feedback prior to their final assessments.
This refers to the expectation that awards are only given when students meet the standards and have acquired the knowledge and skills set out in the qualification descriptors for each level. It also includes an analysis of the degree classification and awards the university gives and whether there is any indication of so-called degree inflation. This ties in with the need to adhere to the classification descriptors which are now formally adopted by the OfS. As there are no quantitative indicators for these conditions, the university must ensure these conditions as an institutions.
What will this apply to and from when?
Another important change will be the remit of the OfS. The university will therefore need to ensure that the courses required to meet these conditions will expand beyond what we understand as prescribed courses. This will mean that apprenticeships that do not lead to a degree, courses delivered outside of the UK or any form of short course will also need to meet the conditions at all times.
The OfS has also announced that the Teaching Excellence Framework will be put in place again later during this academic year. As a requirement to participate in TEF, providers will be expected to meet the conditions outlined above.
As mentioned the changed conditions have not yet been published, but it is expected that they will be published later this year and become effective immediately. QACO is therefore mapping all of our current practices against the new conditions to ensure that all of the university’s courses and awards will continue to meet the expected quality and standards. We will provide more information once the OfS have published the new conditions about if and where changes will need to be made.