Degree standards so what have they got to do with HEFCE

My colleague Tish Bourke blogged yesterday about those elements of the revised operating model for quality assessment that take forward important work on degree standards. This aspect of our approach has prompted comment, and we want to pause for a moment to clarify the basis on which HEFCE has initiated this activity.

First and foremost, we’re absolutely clear that academic standards are set and assessed by individual autonomous degree awarding bodies, within a framework agreed and shared across the UK sector. Safeguarding the strength and reputation of the UK sector requires us all to protect and defend this important principle, and we wholeheartedly sign up to this commitment. The increasing diversity of the sector makes it all the more important to act.

The external examining system – a fundamental aspect of our arrangements not found in other countries – is an important component of the sector’s approach to standards. It operates across the UK to confirm that the achievement of an institution’s students meets the standard set and is reasonably comparable to the achievement of students studying elsewhere in the UK.

We heard strong support for the external examining system during the quality assessment review, and it’s clear that it remains a valued part of the sector’s standards landscape. But it’s worth reminding ourselves that research by the HEA has (not for the first time) cast doubt on the ability of the system to provide reliable confirmation of standards and their reasonable comparability in an increasingly diverse sector.

This raises an important issue, because the external examining system is the only independent test to ensure that an institution is setting and assessing standards properly for individual students. Tish’s blog post explains how we’re working with the sector to explore and address these issues.

(As an aside, I’d like to understand why the HEA findings appear not to have much traction in this debate. Is the research largely unknown and unread? Is there scepticism about the credibility of the research findings and, if so, why? Or something else? I’m genuinely perplexed, and interested to hear views – please post them in the comments box below.)

It’s also worth remembering that there was a significant positive response to the question in our consultation about whether the reliability of degree standards should form part of a future approach to quality assessment. Eighty-eight per cent of respondents, across all respondent groups, said that assurances about standards should be included. Let’s also not forget that students and PSRBs in particular showed high levels of agreement. These groups also indicated that the proposals might not go far enough in providing reliable assurances about degree standards.

All of this – the student interest argument, the positive consultation responses, and the need to safeguard the reputation of UK degree awards in a fast developing and increasingly diverse sector – amounts to a compelling case for a fresh look at degree standards.

But the question being raised with a degree of fervour is: what do degree standards have to do with HEFCE? Spectres have been raised of us marching into territory considered the sole preserve of an autonomous sector. The reality is quite different.

Recent commentators have quoted section 70 of the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act as evidence that HEFCE’s quality assessment responsibilities do not extend to matters relating to standards. And indeed, the Act says that HEFCE shall ‘secure that provision is made for assessing the quality of education provided in institutions for whose activities they provide, or are considering providing, financial support’. So it’s correct to point out that there is no explicit use of the term ‘standards’ here.

We’re confident, however, that HEFCE’s responsibility for assessing the ‘quality of education’ does indeed encompass ‘standards’: the ‘right to education’, as set out in the more recent 1998 Human Rights Act, is held to include the assessment and certification of successful studies. In other words, the world has moved on since 1992, and we have updated our understanding of the statutory basis for our responsibilities accordingly.

But we’d suggest that it’s not particularly helpful to trade legal interpretations. Instead, we’d return to the legitimate student and public interest in confirming reliable degree standards, and to the importance of this issue for the international reputation of the UK sector. And, of course, we’re providing funding and support to the sector to explore these issues for itself, and we’re doing this is a way that restates our commitment to protect the sector’s autonomy and responsibility for standards as a matter of principle.

We’re looking forward to seeking how the sector’s work develops. But we’re quite clear that action – in the student interest and for the reputation of the sector – is necessary. The findings of the HEA research can’t be set aside or ignored. This is a real opportunity to provide better reassurance about reliable degree standards – let’s grasp it.