Published on 14 November 2022
This blog was written by Professor Michael Young, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic), University of Sunderland
Stefan Collini’s What are universities for? (2012) reserves just a few pithy paragraphs for quality assurance. This emphasis hardly reflects the sector’s experience since the advent of the Office for Students (OfS), charged it seems to destabilise England’s quality oversight system. Today, we might respond to the question in the title of Collini’s book with: to service the regulator.
Highly regarded internationally, the old system operated on the premise that when institutional objectives and procedures were quality-code compliant – and the right people understood and followed them – the right conditions existed to guarantee quality and standards in practice. That way, those who needed to be assured would be.
But, for Collini, this was a fallacy of accountability: a self-serving, bureaucratic regime of 'pseudo-objective' reporting that dealt with only the vaguest proxies of students’ actual learning experience and achievement. His critique now seems outdated because such things don’t matter so much.
Under the new regime, we are about to move to the other extreme as we face a data tsunami. This dumbing down confuses the concepts of quality, standards and excellence through the fetishisation of metrics. It grossly over-prioritises evidence that is conducive to numeration – yet more 'pseudo-objectivity'. It establishes a viewpoint just as skewed, and just as remote from the student as scrutinising only high-level objectives and procedures. Education is a customer service that delivers a product. This is the new fallacy.
Confusion is already in evidence: the new Teaching Excellence Framework requires improvement of anything less than excellent. So the quality baseline is excellence. But acceptable quality also means winning a different numbers game – based on naïve, absolute targets for continuation, and the rest – which uses an unrelated methodology. Standards are apparently falling when the wrong numbers rise, fall, or diverge. Prior learning counts sometimes (for example in grade inflation analysis) and at other times all context is derided. Fines apply if we get it wrong.
Across this diffuse mess, this excruciating granularity, the most important part of the story is missing. Pick one split metric and consider the complex pre- and co-determinants – personal, historical, social, economic, environmental as well as educational – that impact on each individual data point (sorry, student).
While the OfS indulges in the doublethink of simultaneously embracing and disavowing the concept of educational disadvantage, the rest of us are left to consider what really produces a high-quality system for all students, one which is worthwhile for each individual, irrespective of their circumstances. Students first; the taxpayer a distant second; regulatory compliance with Condition B3 an incidental bi-product.
In their discussion of quality and excellence, Lee Harvey and Diana Green explore how quality fundamentally relates to transformational change. They use the analogy of the qualitative state change of ice melting into water, which would be overlooked if we only measured the temperature rise.
In education, transformation translates as 'cognitive transcendence', a view of learning wholly incompatible with the prevailing consumer, product-based notion of educational value:
Education is not a service for a customer but an ongoing process of transformation of the participant be it student learner or researcher… This process of transformation is necessarily a unique, negotiated process in each case.
Value comes from that which is added – the extent and nature of the transformation – which necessarily involves the individual becoming empowered to effect change on themselves (which could be through guided, practical means such as learning contracts or other forms of self-evaluation).
Graham Gibbs cites this work in Dimensions of Quality, a report which still seems unsurpassed, despite the avalanche of regulatory advice, conditions, insights, ministerial letters, and other politicised briefing notes the sector has been subjected to since. With great clarity he sets out in practical terms the strongest predictors of student achievement. These are powerful lessons for academic leaders and a solid starting point for a common-sense approach to the evaluation of quality. Prior conditions (presage) and delivery characteristics (process) are carefully distinguished, and the pitfalls of over-reliance on outcomes (product) identified. He calls for a focus on the value added, not the absolute:
The best predictor of product is the quality of students entering the institution … so that if you only have a measure of product, such as degree classifications, rather than of gains, then you cannot easily interpret differences between institutions.
Unfortunately, despite a series of funded projects on learning gain, our higher education system has not found an adequate response to this challenge. So, it remains in the territory of institutional intention, rather than rigorous and comparative evaluation that might form the basis of a student-first quality system.
The central mission of the University of Sunderland is to be life-changing, and we mean it. We accept students with potential and aspiration rather than high-entry tariff; we provide routes and extensive support for prospective entrants (even for Medicine, where our tariff is at the usual top end); and strongly encourage applicants from backgrounds associated with disadvantage, whether socioeconomic, or other circumstances like care experience or late returners to study. We invest heavily in student support, in all its forms, thereon after.
It can be risky, but the rewards are immense and the transformations palpable. We are hardly alone in doing this, and the whole sector deserves the respect and credit for creating opportunity and transforming lives. If only we had a quality system that addressed this reality and remembered it is all about what happens to real people.
Professor Young's blog originally appeared on the HEPI (Higher Education Policy Institute) website.