UK higher education is changing. It has already changed more rapidly in the last few years than probably ever before, and it is likely to continue to evolve.

Header from the quality assessment review discussion document

There are shifts in both the nature of the provision and in the demands of those who seek information about the quality of this provision. Over the next decade there will be greater diversity of providers and provision, new applications of digital and internet-based learning, and increasingly global patterns of delivery.

In such an environment, students and potential students need to be confident that the higher education experience in which they are investing valuable time and money meets their expectations. And as the diversity of provision grows, employers will seek assurance that the changing patterns of learning, and the different forms of providers that they encounter, meet validated quality standards.

The existing international reputation for excellence that UK higher education enjoys is hard-won by the people who work in our universities and colleges. But it is also a consequence of our determination to have highly respected systems of quality assessment and assurance, which are regularly reviewed and adjusted to meet the changing needs of the system being assessed.

The review of teaching quality assessment, announced in October by the funding bodies in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, is a valuable opportunity to reflect on what these changing needs might be. How do we want to conceptualise quality assessment and assurance in the future? What should it deliver, and how and for whom?

The Quality Assessment Review Steering Group, which I chair, has published a discussion document which invites institutions, students and others to participate in the debate. It is a very broad-based document which we all hope will stimulate debate in higher education and with partners of higher education.

We are posing some big questions. What does quality look like, and how can we assess it? Can there be comparability of standards beyond a minimum threshold in an increasingly diverse environment? How should we detect and deal with inadequate quality of teaching or standards? Should we recognise quality assessment systems in other jurisdictions? In considering these questions, we need also to take account of the contexts and priorities of different parts of the UK (the Scottish Funding Council is reviewing its own arrangements through a separate process).

We hope the discussion document will be used to stimulate a debate at the heart of universities and colleges, and for this to generate new ideas that can then be fed back to us. We don’t want this to be just a form-filling exercise.

We also welcome views from others outside higher education. What confidence will employers, government and the taxpayer seek from future quality assessment arrangements?

If there are demands a future assessment system must meet that we have overlooked, please let us know. We want to know what you think needs to happen to ensure that our teaching and learning quality assessment system in the UK is excellent and fit for purpose.

The steering group will meet at the end of March to consider the outcomes emerging from this first phase of discussion. The second phase of the review, in the summer of 2015, will address more detailed questions relating to the design and implementation of any future quality assessment arrangements. The decision about whether to make changes and, if so, how to procure the future system will be made by the funding bodies in September.

In order to be as open as possible, we are publishing summaries of our meetings on the HEFCE website on behalf of the three funding bodies involved. We look forward to seeing your responses and listening to your views.