Quality in Higher and Further Education

Warning – this post is a) exceptionally long and b) exceptionally long. Whilst I realise that both of those warnings area the same, it is such an important warning that it needs repeating twice.

So today was the annual Quality Assurance Agency conference, held in the majestic Surgeon’s Hall in Edinburgh – a venue I know better as an Edinburgh Fringe venue. Despite being somewhat more subdued, the atmosphere was in many ways very similar. Hordes of people queued for access to different breakout rooms, all excited by a shared passion. At intervals, the toilets filled up with alarming speed, and the building was full of people working out where they needed to go. However, despite all of the buzz and excitement (both in real life and on the twitter-sphere) there were a number of questions raised during the day that need answering.

Firstly was the issue of attendance. Yes, everyone (in the main) was keen to be there had something to contribute and things they wanted to take away. But almost as soon as the lights went up, one delegate questioned this make up. Surely this was preaching to the converted. To stick with the theme of theatre, it was like a troupe who’s aim was to increase knowledge of Shakespeare performing to a room full of devotees of the bard. If it is always the same people in the room, how do we spread knowledge, skills, and, above all, passion, across the sector?

Secondly was a debate, very much linked in with the above, about how we avoid box ticking. Quality Assurance is always at risk of becoming a box ticking exercise, particularly amongst staff who haven’t yet brought in to the notion of focusing on providing a top quality education being the primary aim of a university, or when systems, whilst noble in intentions, reduce quality to a series of beauracratic paper trails. The group that I ended up in, complete with NUS national officer, discussed why quality was based around minimum standards. First off, we agreed that guidelines could be aspirational. Then we discussed how we could move beyond a one dimensional view of quality. In a precious life, and in the world of young persons participation, the indicators that we used in our development framework had seven stages, although today we discussed the possibility of having three – minimum, good and exceptional. Yet even this is at risk of forcing uniformity across the country – how do we support and recognise institutions who are innovative in their quality assurance and enhancement? And this, surely, is the key. Assurance and enhancement are two sides of the same coin. As one delegate put it “quality assurance is about making sure there is no horse meat in your burger. Quality enhancement is about making it a gourmet burger”. Cue laughter. Yet even this is over simplistic. It assumes that everyone wants the same burger. Now, I’m a vegetarian – will higher education cater for my needs? What if I want a wholemeal bap? Or relish? So the answer appears to be a quality code that is highly flexible, that can meet the needs of students, and allows innovation, which has measurable standards but doesn’t just exist to measure against standards… Now, if you’re not confused at this point (and even as I tap away on my iPad I’m not even quite sure what was written!) then you deserve a medal.

The next tough question is: How much knowledge do students need? Graeme Osborn, Education guru from York, said “do students know about the quality code? No. Do students’ need to know about the quality code? No. Do students need access to a well informed students union who can use the quality code to lobby for change? Yes.” Now, this raises a really interesting question for me. If partnership is all about sharing information and knowledge, then surely we should be sharing all the information that we gain access to as students’ unions with our membership. On the other hand, the feedback that I’ve had at least from students is that things like the quality code are the sort of thing that discourage them from engagement. Engagement and partnership cannot be viewed as an on/off switch, but as a journey taken by each individual partner. I guess my views would be that shoving the quality code down the throat of students is unlikely to increase engagement, although it is a very useful part of the development of students as active citizens.

Only a few more thoughts. On partnership – some great discussion, revolving around the need to support students in leading on their engagement. Liverpool Hope, for example, give money to course reps to take lecturers out for a coffee at the beginning of a semester, to discuss what the lecturer wants the students to get out of the course, how they are going to do this, and discussing the best way to engage students. The aim is to get students involved in designing projects – supporting active citizenship (something I had a really interesting discussion about with Liam Burns, President of NUS UK).

The next challenge that arose was based out of a seminar on how to do quality assurance in transnational education, specifically in china. This subject is one that I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating recently – but in a broader sense. Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that last year, for the first time in history, there were more international students studying for a UK degree outside of the UK than there were in the UK. Bangor itself is currently looking at setting up two international campus’. This presents both some fantastic opportunities to allow students from across the world to become global citizens, as well as presenting significant challenges, not least is quality assurance. How does one assure the quality of exams not done in an institutions home language? How does an institution check that the standards they set are being met when they are not around (something the University of Wales never quite managed to achieve). Ultimately, in this area institutions are at risk of moving too fast, and creating courses that do not meet the needs of students across the world, or moving too slowly, getting bogged down by the past, and missing out on the future of higher education.

Finally, lets talk about MOOCs – massive open online courses. These free/nearly free/not free courses (depending on provider) lead/don’t lead to accreditation (depending on provider). Sir Michael Barber, in a recent report entitled “an avalanche is coming”, argues that middle of the road research/teaching universities are facing extinction as students move to MOOCs. The panel – including the QAA’s head of reviews, Vince Cables guru on the topic, and a very eloquent gentleman from the Open University, all decried this suggestion. They were also united in their caution of future gazing – with the market being so immature, they had no ability to predict where MOOCs will fit within the education sector. A few other interesting themes arose. Firstly, around the theme of finance, there are many concerns. The government is interested in online technology, but doesn’t want to lead or fund it. Looking at America, which has a slightly more developed sector, there are even more concerns. Firstly, there is no certainty in funding from government! Secondly, venture capitalists funding MOOCs in America will want an exit after a few years, as this is how they make their money – who will fund courses then?
Secondly, how do we assess quality of online courses? Very different to traditional higher education – a new model of QA is needed.
Finally, the 64,000 dollar question – what happens in the future. The was some feeling that the greatest opportunity is local rather than demand from overseas, that MOOCs won’t replace traditional universities, and that they need to be student focused.

This brings us back to the start – a conference on Quality Assurance that was specifically about improving the student experience, and meeting the needs of students and the world for the future. I left feeling both jubilation at sharing the room with some inspirational and passionate people, and also concern that this had been a day of preaching to the converted. To return to my original metaphor – the show must go on. Success will be measured not by the mood of a conference, but by the views of students, and by the effect that Higher and Further Education have on producing graduates who are active citizens, able to make the world a better place. Perhaps it is we, the audience, who have the responsibility to make this happen.

*Curtains*


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