Additional Supplementary Written evidence from Quality Assurance Agency, QAA (WOS0068)



We are grateful to the committee for the opportunity to respond directly to the evidence provided by the chair and the chief executive of the Office for Students (OfS) on 9 May 2023.

OfS comments on the non-compliance of the English system with international good practice

We wish to emphasise again that we believe the vast majority of English higher education provision is of very high quality, and we continue to advocate for the UK’s world-leading higher education sector on the global stage and to reassure international partners.

While we agree that the international reputation of UK higher education is a result of many factors, quality assurance is the externally visible evidence of the sector’s quality, and as such underpins the international reputation and export power of UK higher education. It remains unclear whether the OfS leadership recognises the tangible risk posed by its current implementation of the regulatory framework.  If left unresolved, the anomalous approach to quality by the regulator in England could impact on the ability of higher education providers in England to attract international students and to operate more broadly internationally. The OfS leadership’s stated intention to keep the DQB functions in-house in at least the medium-term compounds these concerns.

We continue to believe that it is possible, within a risk-based system, to have a cyclical review element that is light on burden, meets the requirements of the European Standards and Guidelines (ESG) and adds value for providers. Indeed, the ESG allows systems to account for their legislative framework and thus to take different forms. To our knowledge, the OfS has never undertaken any work to attempt to reconcile the two systems and we have never had the opportunity to advise on how this may be achieved.

The non-compliance of the English system extends beyond the work of the QAA. It signals a departure from commitments made by the UK at a ministerial level under the European Higher Education Area through the Bologna Process. The OfS’s evidence in this regard appears to reflect a significant misunderstanding of the Bologna Process, the UK’s international commitments and the European Standards and Guidelines.

OfS comments that DQB reports were not good enough to make regulatory judgements

It is our view that the triennial report substantially misrepresents QAA’s record as DQB. As we have stated publicly, we fundamentally disagree with both the content and conclusions of the triennial report and have submitted considerable representations against it. We remain of the view that it is neither in the best interests of students or the sector to engage in a protracted public disagreement with OfS on this matter.

In the interests of factual accuracy, the figures stated by the chair and chief executive of the OfS refer only to assessment reports submitted up to March 2022. The chief executive’s phrase ‘the most recent year’ refers to data from the DQB year 2021-22 (the DQB year operated April-March, aligned to financial rather than academic year). The most recent year of DQB work is in fact 2022-23 during which OfS commissioned reports form the DQB at a higher rate than ever before. In that time (from April 2022 to March 2023) we received feedback in relation to only two reports out of 66 (3% of reports).

As we emphasised in our oral evidence session, the OfS has used DQB reports to make regulatory decisions, often citing the reports directly. After we announced our decision to demit the DQB role in July 2022, the OfS commissioned the DQB at a higher rate than ever before. For example, in the period October-December 2022 we had 41 active assessments, compared with 23 active assessments in the equivalent quarter of the previous year.

OfS comments that HERA does not require the DQB to be independent

The OfS is correct that HERA (Schedule 4, Clause 10 (1)) states that the OfS “may give the designated body general directions”.  The OfS’s evidence did not, however, include Clause 10 (2), which states that “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”.

While it is obviously true that in order to make impartial assessments of quality, the DQB must be independent from providers, in our view the legislation reflects the equally important principle that the DQB must be independent from the regulator.  This is consistent with international good practice:  for example, the European Standards and Guidelines state that quality assurance should operate “without third party influence”.

As detailed in our written evidence, it is our view that OfS exceeded its powers in that its directions were highly prescriptive (rather than “general”) and did not protect the DQB’s expertise or ability to make impartial assessments;  in both cases we believe this posed a threat to the DQB’s independence. 

The legislative intent for a DQB which, while accountable for its work to the OfS, is independent not only in its quality assessment work but in designing the quality assessment system, is clear both in the Parliamentary records and in the White Paper that preceded HERA, Success as a Knowledge Economy.  That White Paper states: “Once a body has been designated, it will gain a statutory duty to design and operate the quality assessment system, reporting to the OfS.”

The threat to the DQB’s independence from the regulator was the underlying concern behind QAA’s temporary suspension from the European Quality Assurance Register, exemplified by the issues of students on review teams and the publication of reports. 

OfS comments about a conflict of interest with the DQB

We acknowledge the OfS leadership’s views on this and, as relayed in our evidence session, disagree. We do not believe that QAA membership – the necessary funding model for the delivery of quality enhancement in England (something that is part of the regulatory approach in the other UK nations) – presented a conflict to the work of the DQB.  The DQB team was ringfenced by an ethical, operational and communications firewall.  It did not have sight of the work of the rest of the organisation and vice versa.  These arrangements were subject to review by external bodies including auditors, and no concerns were ever expressed.  Had we continued as the DQB, we were in the process of setting up an entirely separate Board to govern the DQB functions.

HERA dictates that the organisation providing the DQB function should command the confidence of the sector.  Our membership take-up in England is a clear demonstration of this, and it is difficult to see how any organisation without wider engagement in the sector could command such confidence.

OfS comments about QAA’s ability to return as DQB

We note the view of the OfS chief executive and chair that they cannot see a credible route for our return.  We believe it is in the best interest of the sector and students for there to be an independent DQB, and it is clear that QAA is the only body that could fulfil that role.  We remain of the view that it is possible to resolve the issues of non-compliance with international good practice, which we firmly believe can be resolved to the satisfaction of all parties.  We would be keen to have conversations about how to move forward so that we can restore the trust in England’s quality system for domestic stakeholders and those overseas.

15 May 2023