Written evidence from the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, QAA (WOS0024)





QAA’s decision to submit written evidence to the House of Lords Industry and Regulators Committee’s inquiry into the work of the Office for Students reflects our charitable objects as an independent charity:

    1. the promotion and maintenance of quality and standards in tertiary education in the UK and elsewhere;
    2. the enhancement of teaching and learning, and the identification and promotion of innovation and good practice in teaching and learning;
    3. the provision of information and the publication of reports on quality and standards in tertiary education in the UK and elsewhere; and
    4. the provision of advice to governments, as requested, on access course recognition and in relation to all or any of the above objects.


QAA’s expertise is in quality and standards.  While we recognise the breadth of OfS’s responsibilities, our answers in this written evidence focus on the OfS’s regulation of quality and standards, drawing on our expertise and on our recent experience as the Secretary of State’s Designated Quality Body in England (DQB), operating within the OfS’s regulatory framework.


While our evidence raises concerns about the regulatory approach in England, we wish to emphasise that we believe that higher education provision in England remains of very high quality overall.



Summary of response


  1. QAA made the decision to step away from the role of Designated Quality Body in England (DQB) because the current implementation of the regulatory framework by the OfS and our role within it jeopardised our compliance with international good practice.  Compliance is recognised through our position on the European Quality Assurance Register, which acts as our license to operate elsewhere, including in Scotland and Wales.  England’s divergence from international good practice risks undermining international confidence in UK higher education and therefore the financial sustainability of the sector.


  1. QAA believes the OfS’s statutory duties are clear and appropriate, but that the evolution of the regulatory framework over time and the associated shifts in OfS’s interpretation and implementation of it has diverged from the legislative intent and, at times, contravened relevant provisions in the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, to the detriment of the sector and students.  Our particular experience relates to the operation of the DQB, where OfS’s approach has presented significant challenges, and thereby impacted the experience of higher education providers undergoing assessment.  This included the DQB’s ability to operate independently, flexibly and with agility as the legislation intended. The result of this has been increased regulatory burden, and a lack of clarity and consistency for providers.
  2. Based on our experience as DQB, while the OfS may have sufficient powers to meet its duties of assessing quality and standards, it will need to acquire a significant volume and depth of resource and expertise to undertake the DQB functions effectively.  As it stands, the proposed interim arrangements are a cause for concern for QAA and for the sector. We are keen to engage in discussion about short and long-term solutions to the quality arrangements in England.


  1. We believe the OfS’s regulatory approach would improve if there were higher levels of trust, collaboration, and transparency with the sector and if student engagement was further prioritised.


Background:  QAA and our roles in the UK nations


  1. Who we are:  The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) is an independent charity working in the UK and internationally on quality assurance in tertiary education, to benefit students and the sector.  We are an internationally renowned expert body in academic quality and standards.


  1. Our UK-wide remit:  Our UK-wide responsibilities include acting as custodian of key sector-owned reference points such as the UK Quality Code and credit frameworks that safeguard standards in UK higher education, and regulating the Access to HE Diploma which transforms lives by offering students from non-traditional backgrounds access to higher education.  We also work internationally, including engaging at a system level to benefit the UK sector.


  1. Our work in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland:  Due to the devolved nature of higher education policy and legislation in the UK, our roles differ across the nations. In Scotland and Wales, we deliver the quality arrangements on behalf of the respective funding councils.  In Northern Ireland, we expect to be commissioned soon by the Department for the Economy to do the same.  In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, QAA membership is a requirement of the quality arrangements, and the enhancement work we deliver to our members is informed by insights gained through our statutory role.


  1. English enhancement role:  Since 2018, we have operated two separate roles in England.  The first is our activity with higher and further education providers to enhance academic quality above the regulatory baseline.  This role is comparable to our enhancement work in the other nations of the UK, but in England is funded through a voluntary membership scheme because the English regulatory arrangements have moved away from a focus on enhancement.  QAA membership in the other UK nations is a requirement as part of their quality arrangements. The vast majority of universities in England are QAA members. 


  1. English DQB role: Our second function in England since 2018 has been the statutory designation as the Designated Quality Body (DQB), a role that ceased on 31 March 2023. This function was delivered through a ring-fenced team within QAA, separated by an operational, ethical and communications firewall internally.  As DQB, we undertook the following work:

-          Quality and Standards Reviews for the purposes of providers seeking entry to the OfS Register and for Monitoring and Intervention purposes for registered providers (although the OfS did not commission any of the latter after 2019)

-          Degree Awarding Powers – for providers seeking full powers, the new powers route, and variations on existing powers

-          Standards Assessments – introduced in 2022 for providers seeking registration

-          External quality assurance of end-point assessment organisations in degree apprenticeships – introduced in 2022, also working closely with the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education.


Reason for QAA’s decision to demit the DQB role


  1.                     In addition to answering the inquiry’s questions, we wish to clarify the reasoning behind our decision to demit the role of Designated Quality Body (DQB) because it has a significant bearing on the inquiry’s questions around the OfS’s duties, expertise, and resource, and the risk to financial sustainability within the sector, particularly surrounding the reliance on international students. We acknowledge the OfS’s position that it would have sought our de-designation citing dissatisfaction with our performance as DQB.  Our decision to demit the role had nothing to do with the relationship between the DQB and OfS, and was solely motivated by the threat posed to our international standing and good practice by the OfS’s requirements of the DQB.


  1.                     Working within the English regulatory framework endangered our licence to operate elsewhere:  On 20 July 2022, QAA announced its intention to demit the DQB role in England in order to safeguard our position on the European Quality Assurance Register (European Register).  The European Register is to us what the OfS register is to a university; its Register Committee makes decisions on compliance. Our position on the European Register is a requirement for our work in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and internationally.  This position was threatened by the current implementation of the English quality system by the OfS, which is not compliant with the international practice that the UK Government has committed to under the European Higher Education Area.  Both the European Register and the European Higher Education Area are separate from the European Union and our commitments are therefore not impacted by the UK’s withdrawal.


  1.                     Elements of the English quality system are at odds with international practice:  In June 2022, QAA was temporarily suspended from the European Register because the Register Committee had judged that the English regulatory approach was non-compliant. This judgement included a concern that the regulatory approach had compromised QAA’s independence as a quality agency. That suspension was lifted once QAA announced that it would step away from the DQB role and unilaterally addressed two requirements that we had found difficult to fulfil given OfS resistance:  lack of students on review teams, and lack of published reports from reviews.


  1.                     This is undermining international confidence in UK higher education:  We are proud ambassadors for the reputation of UK higher education on the world stage.  We believe the vast majority of the English sector is of exceptionally high quality, and we continue to make that case internationally. However, international stakeholders are raising concerns about the English system’s non-compliance with international good practice.  UK higher education enjoys a prestigious reputation internationally and there is some confusion about why England is choosing to deviate from a quality system that it has long advocated for and encouraged countries worldwide to adopt.  Governments and agencies have told us they are concerned about sponsoring students to study at English institutions, as they are unable to verify their quality status through recent, publicly available reports.  Others are concerned about the assurance of quality at English universities’ international campuses and question whether UK higher education is still of high quality.  Although education is a devolved matter, we use the term “UK higher education” because most international stakeholders perceive it as a single entity, posing risks for the other UK nations despite their ongoing compliance with international good practice.


  1.                     Implementation of the regulatory approach in England risks undermining the UK higher education brand:  The committee has rightly identified the risks to the financial sustainability of the sector and the role that international recruitment plays in this. The concerns arising from the way the English regulator has implemented its quality system may result in implications for international student recruitment, but also broader issues related to student and staff mobility and mutual recognition of qualifications.  While, to reiterate, there are no overarching concerns with the quality of English higher education provision, the perception of these changes and international concern over the robustness of the quality system, combined with the lack of communication about the English approach internationally, poses a potential risk to the reputation of UK higher education, international student recruitment and associated financial implications.


  1.                     We are keen to engage in constructive discussions about short and long-term solutions to the quality arrangements in England.  We continue to believe that English higher education students and their institutions are best served by an independent and impartial DQB.  We believe that QAA’s expertise, experience and international recognition make it the obvious choice for this role, and we have indicated to Universities UK and others that we would be willing to discuss the circumstances in which QAA’s re-designation might be possible. 



Call for evidence question responses


Question 1- Are the OfS’ statutory duties clear and appropriate? How successful has the OfS been in performing these duties, and have some duties been prioritised over others?


  1.                     QAA believes the OfS’s statutory duties are clear and appropriate, but that the OfS’s performance of those duties has at times contravened relevant provisions in the Higher Education and Research Act 2017.  We believe that a regulator is needed in a sector as complex and diverse as England’s.  We also support a risk-based and proportionate approach, where the burden a provider experiences is commensurate with the level of risk it poses.
  2.                     Our concern is that OfS has been less successful in performing its duties than it might have been by hampering the work and independence of the DQB, at times going beyond the provisions of the Higher Education and Research Act. 
  3.                     The Act sets out in Schedule 4 that:


10(1)The OfS may give the designated body general directions about the performance of any of the assessment functions.

    (2)In giving such directions, the OfS must have regard to the need to protect—

(a) the expertise of the designated body, and

(b) the designated body’s ability to make, or make arrangements for, an impartial assessment of the quality of, and the standards applied to, higher education provided by a provider.


  1.                     At times, the OfS’s approach went beyond its powers to provide ‘general directions’ to the DQB.  It is our view that some of the instructions provided to us as DQB by the OfS exceeded the scope of "general directions" and failed to protect our expertise and our ability to make, or arrange for, an impartial assessment of quality and standards.


  1.                     As an example, the OfS directed the DQB with regard to how to conduct an assessment of standards in higher education shortly before it introduced its updated conditions on quality and standards in early 2022.  The direction given was a highly specific and restrictive specification about how to carry out a statutory function vested in the DQB (by virtue of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, s.27, 3,a).  The direction required the DQB to follow a “Requirements Document” produced by the OfS that:

-          Specified the precise method of assessment

-          Specified the maximum amount of time it should take (irrespective of provider circumstances or context)

-          Set limitations on the evidence the DQB should consider

-          Set requirements regarding the assessors we should use in terms of their experience (including stating that we must not use student assessors or assessors that are not employed as academic staff but are instead quality assurance professionals)

-          Set requirements on how those assessors must be trained

-          Specified a report template style that must be followed.


  1.                     The restrictive nature of this specification led us to need to insert a caveat in our publicly available guidance on this method that the approach set out differs from the approach that QAA would have undertaken when conducting an assessment of the standards applied to higher education in other circumstances, including in relation to assessments of standards in other nations of the UK.


  1.                     Since May 2022, we have only received one commission under this method for new providers to achieve OfS registration.  Our experience of conducting this assessment suggested that the approach specified by the OfS was challenging for providers to engage with and would likely make it harder for new entrants to the sector.  Furthermore, due to the separation of quality assessment from standards assessment, it meant that potential quality issues could not be highlighted through the reporting mechanism.


Question 2 – how closely does the OfS’ regulatory framework adhere to its statutory duties? How has this framework developed over time, and what impacts has this had on higher education providers?  


  1.                    The evolution of the regulatory framework over time and the associated shifts in OfS’s interpretation and implementation of it created a lack of clarity and consistency in assessment expectations. This presented significant challenges to the DQB operations, and therefore impacted the experience of higher education providers undergoing assessment.  Our assessment methods as the DQB were fundamentally based in the regulatory framework.  As previous witnesses to this inquiry have stated, the framework evolved over time.  While we recognise the necessity of adapting a framework in its infancy as the OfS was set up and embedded within the sector, this made it increasingly difficult for us to ensure clarity and consistency of expectations in the assessments completed by us in our role as DQB.


  1.                     Since 2018, we have had to deliver against three different scenarios for the assessment of quality and standards:


  1.                    The OfS’s approach to implementing the regulatory framework limited the ability of the DQB to be flexible to providers’ circumstances, generating regulatory burden:  We acknowledge that committee witnesses have expressed opinions about the perceived bureaucratic nature of the degree-awarding powers process.  The degree-awarding powers criteria are set by the OfS.  The DQB was required to work within those criteria.  The criteria are extensive, with 58 separate evidence requirements, which we appreciate can lead to a sense of excessive bureaucracy.  This is an example of the restrictions to our agility as DQB, contrary to the legislative intention; it prevented us from being as open minded as we would have wished regarding the way in which a provider operates.


Question 4 - Does the OfS have sufficient powers, resources and expertise to meet its duties? How will its expertise be affected by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education’s decision not to continue as the OfS’ Designated Quality Body?


  1.                     DQB work requires a significant volume and depth of expertise which the OfS will need to acquire:  It is evident that the OfS has been attempting to recruit staff to build the expertise required to deliver assessment functions.  The OfS did not accept that provisions under the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations should apply, and therefore there has been no transfer of expertise from the DQB to the OfS.  In some of our engagements with OfS we have been left with the impression that it underestimates the level of work involved in fulfilling DQB functions and therefore the level of resource required.  For reference, if QAA had continued to be designated, we would have needed a pool of around 250 reviewers (members of an expert pool established over many years) to fulfil DQB functions including the external quality assurance work relating to higher and degree apprenticeships.


  1.                     Shortcomings of the proposed interim arrangements are a cause for concern for QAA and the wider sector:  Since our announcement in July 2022 that we intend to demit the role from 31 March 2023, sector stakeholders have raised their significant concerns – to us and others – about the assessment functions residing in-house at the OfS.  From our perspective as quality experts, these interim arrangements lack significant elements of good practice that risk substantially undermining the robustness of quality and standards assessment undertaken by the OfS and therefore international trust in the sector.  These include:

-          Independence of the assessment functions, so that there can be no perception of conflict with regulatory decision-making;

-          The publication of all review reports, so that transparency is maintained;

-          The involvement of students in all assessments, so that their experience and perspective is properly reflected;

-          The consistent involvement of academic expertise in the assessment of quality, so that expert judgement is brought to bear.


  1.                    As stated at paragraph 15, we are keen to engage in constructive discussions about future arrangements, both short and long-term.  This could include consideration of the circumstances in which it would be possible for QAA to be re-designated to the role of DQB in England.
  2.                     The OfS will need to ensure clear, consistent and timely communication with providers about the timing of their assessments to avoid delays.  We acknowledge that there have been concerns regarding the timeliness of assessment.  Length of assessment is determined by the reference point against which a provider is being assessed and it is our expert view that good practice avoids setting an arbitrary timeline that risks prohibiting adequate assessment of a provider.


  1.                     That said, we found that often providers were not prepared for assessment due to unclear guidance from the OfS regarding the assessment's timing within their registration process.  The DQB has no engagement with providers before referral, and the first contact typically occurs on the referral date.  In some cases, providers proactively reached out to the DQB, expecting their details to have been received when they had not been.  The DQB could only begin making necessary arrangements for assessment, such as appointing the right expert assessors, once the OfS referral was received.  Providers cannot seek assessment directly from the DQB – all interactions were channelled through the OfS. Consequently, we have no hard knowledge of the time elapsed between a provider's application to OfS for admission to the register or for degree-awarding powers, and the referral of that application from OfS to the DQB. 


  1.                     As previously stated, we also hold a concern that the OfS’s approach to quality is contravening established international good practice.  Our reason for demission is because of the position we were placed in when England became the only UK nation not to be judged compliant by the European Register.  We reiterate this point here because it creates fundamental risks for the UK higher education sector’s coherence, for the sector’s export power, and for its ability to continue to attract international students.  Ultimately this all affects UK higher education’s reputation and role on the global stage.


Question 6 - How does the OfS engage with students? To what extent does input from students drive the OfS’ view of their interests and its regulatory actions to protect those interests?


  1.                     It is our experience that OfS has deprioritised student engagement in its regulatory approach to quality and standards:  We partner with students deeply throughout the delivery of our work and it was a concern to us that as DQB, we were instructed by OfS not to include students in some assessments.  This was one of the factors that contravened international good practice in quality assessment and resulted in our temporary suspension from the European Register.  Recent regulatory advice from the OfS suggests it may not include students in assessments of quality, a practice we, and others committed to good practice, would not endorse.


Question 7 - What is the nature of the OfS’ relationship with higher education providers? Does the OfS strike the right balance between working collaboratively with universities and providing robust challenge?


  1.                     We believe the regulatory approach would improve if there were higher levels of trust, collaboration and transparency with the sector.  We believe that a robust and constructive relationship between the regulator and higher education providers is crucial to delivering quality provision.  Without a clear understanding of the conditions against which they are assessed and how this will be achieved, providers cannot meet these standards without burden.  A failure to adequately engage and co-create frameworks using the academic expertise of the sector limits the regulator’s credibility.  This approach is embedded in the Regulator’s Code, which speaks of the need to work with the regulated sector and build trust and the need for transparency.  For clarity, we are not proposing a system of “co-regulation”, but rather one in which the sector actively contributes expertise to the regulatory framework, holds a clear understanding of its principles and operation and trusts in the regulator to deliver the framework in a robust and impartial manner.


  1.                     As a UK wide organisation, we have witnessed the divergence between England and the other UK nations.  While regulatory frameworks in other UK nations work differently, the level of engagement and trust built between providers and the bodies which oversee them demonstrates that a more constructive relationship is possible, without preventing the regulatory body from finding fault when provision is inadequate.


Question 8 - What systemic financial risks are present in the higher education sector? Is there the potential for significant provider failures if these risks crystallise, for example through an unexpected reduction in numbers of overseas students or an unexpected increase in pension costs? Are these risks limited to particular groups of providers or are they widespread or systemic in nature?


  1.                     It is possible that the English system’s non-compliance with international good practice and associated perceived risks around quality of provision among international stakeholders could undermine international student recruitment.  While it isn’t sufficiently our area of expertise to comment at length about the financial risks present in the higher education sector, we recognise the role that international student recruitment has played with regards to this issue in the inquiry so far.  We therefore reiterate our points above regarding the OfS’s departure from international good practice in quality assessment and the consequent concerns we have heard from international stakeholders. Through continued implementation of a regulatory approach that diverges from good practice and a failure to communicate both the reasoning behind this and adequate assurances of ongoing high quality, there are real risks to both the English and UK higher education sector’s reputation.  This could impact on international student recruitment, particularly from nations where students are often state-sponsored and more broadly on student and staff mobility, mutual recognition of qualifications and ultimately the financial sustainability of a sector increasingly reliant on international student fees.


05 April 2023