In an increasingly diverse sector, it is vital that there are robust and transparent processes for assessing and classifying student outcomes and ensuring appropriate comparability of degrees.
Over the past few years, HEFCE has worked across a number of fronts to support students and the sector in reviewing and improving these processes.
UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment
HEFCE is an active member of the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment (UKSCQA), which provides sector-led oversight of those higher education quality assessment arrangements that continue to be shared across the UK. The Committee is leading programmes of work to strengthen degree classification systems and processes.
Support for external examiners
This UK-wide programme includes a project on support and training for external examiners. The project, which is led by the Higher Education Academy (HEA), aims to improve comparability of standards by ensuring that external examiners have the technical skills they need to help maintain academic standards.
One year in, the project has already achieved substantial impact, with over 200 academics from around 70 higher education providers undertaking professional development activities supporting the role of the external examiner.
This work also has a calibration strand. The HEA are running a series of small-scale pilots with a range of subject associations and PSRBs, with the aim of investigating how subject communities and groups can work together to ensure the robust comparability of standards.
The project evaluation will assess the impact on examiners’ longer-term practice, and whether participants have shared their learning more widely across their institutions.
This project builds on the 2015 study commissioned by HEFCE which reviewed external examining arrangements as part of a wider review of quality assessment.
Understanding degree algorithms
Further work under the auspices of UKSCQA has included a joint Universities UK/GuildHE project which looked at the range of degree classification algorithms – the sets of rules that institutions follow to determine a student’s final degree classification – in use across the sector. The resulting report made a number of recommendations to help improve transparency and maintain confidence in sector standards. Feedback from the sector has suggested the report is being used in a variety of ways within institutions, with some conducting a specific review of institutional practice against the report’s recommendations.
This year, UKSCQA will be taking forward a further substantial piece of work on comparability of degree standards. The final specification for the programme, will cover a number of key themes:
- Clarification on the grade classification boundaries in use across the sector
- Research into the drivers for the increase in the proportion of good degree outcomes across the UK
- How the sector should work with funders and regulators to manage the collective risks of ‘grade inflation’ – what management tools and processes are in place, and how can best use can be made of them?
The UK-wide project will be led by Universities UK, GuildHE and the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA), working with the UK funding bodies and regulators, and key stakeholders such as the Association of Colleges, Independent HE, the NUS, and employer groups to ensure that the diversity of the sector is appropriately represented.
Jess Bacon is Senior Policy Adviser in the Quality team at HEFCE, part of the secretariat supporting the work of the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment.