Did you know that universities up and down the nation are responsible for setting their own standards?  I know, it surprised me too.

At the moment, with the present fees of £9,000 per year, it’s hardly surprising that students are considered consumers – almost to the degree (pardon the pun) where their consumer nature outweighs their status as merely ‘someone in education.’

Over the summer it transpired that the number of students complaining about their courses in some shape or form was on the increase, and that it has now exceeded 20,000 in the last year.  It makes for some sad reading and I spent a little time thinking about why.  The answer is naturally obvious: that students are quite rightly demanding more from their courses and universities aren’t keeping up or offering a substandard package.

As a university student who’s seen what happens when you hike up fees for students and what happens when you don’t provide enough support and ‘education’ for your money.  It changed the dynamics of student life for good and was rather sad to see.  Immediately from the outset I did wonder what was being done to ensure that we got a fairer deal.

Universities providing their own auditing is frankly ridiculous and really wouldn’t work – the obvious conflict of interest there is pretty stunning.

Fortunately, the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) has been in charge of making sure that universities uphold their own standards since 1997.  To ensure that students get the best deal and so on, they go around to universities and colleges and monitor the standards and teaching that they’ve set out.

I mean, one thing immediately strikes me as odd in all of this: why don’t we have an independent set of standards to ensure that everyone’s on the same page?  Surely having a list of regulations and code of best practices would make sure that universities offered the best mix of education and value would be the best step forward?

Inspections would be an awful lot easier if everyone had the same set of standards as opposed to some arbitrary code of conduct for each university that’s open to interpretation by just about everyone.  At the same time, a nationalised code would ensure consistency and attract foreign investment, not to mention raising actual teaching and support standards

Don’t think it’s an issue?  Well, 20,000 complaints and rising each year isn’t for nothing.

Perhaps I’ve strayed from the point here – perhaps the main point we have to look at are the inspections and how they go about them?  Surely if universities were in a mess we’d hear about this – nothing something we hear much about.  The only way we do hear about it is through the damning news of complaint numbers.

I suspect the reason behind that is because the inspections are telling a different story to those who are spending the money.  Perhaps then an overhaul is no bad thing, especially seeing as student number caps will be removed some time next year – there’s going to be more students looking for that quality after all.

This week the councils responsible for Higher Education funding have announced a review will indeed take place to see what’s going on with the inspection system.  There will be, interestingly, a system of tendering to hopefully bring some bidders to the table in 2017, roughly when the current crop of first years will be finishing up.

The QAA has responded to the news by assuring us that they offer “internationally recognised expertise” in quality assurance – not sure if I’m buying that but I can see their frustration in losing out.

Trouble is, it doesn’t seem to have been met with the greatest of responses…

  • Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group – our so-called ‘elite’ group of universities, said that she’d like to see a ‘proportional approach’ of working that also meant less ‘inspection and bureaucracy’ for the more established universities.  All I’m going to read into that is that she doesn’t want any change other than less for her group.
    Perhaps ‘elite’ means ‘elitist’ in this case  – one group clearly feeling they’re ahead of the others and better than a set of regular inspections.  Just because they’re considered ‘better’, it doesn’t mean the students are any less interested in the quality they get.  Quite the opposite in fact, from my perspective – I’d demand more.
    Furthermore, Piatt adds that the inspections should be directed towards those universities ‘where the problems are more likely to be’ – as if there are never any problems in the Russell Group.  I think she might be just a little out of touch with reality there…
  • Pam Tatlow, chief executive of the Million+ group of universities, argues that whilst there are questions about how the QAA operates, the system isn’t broken and universities wouldn’t benefit from an Ofsted-style inspection system.

Why not?  I don’t understand that.  I mean, of course right now without a set of standards to cover the entire industry I suspect that such a style of inspection wouldn’t work.  Imagine the inspectors having to dig out a new set of guidelines each time – it would be a nightmare.

That said, if everyone followed the same guidelines I wouldn’t see why not.  If Student Unions can organise reps and council meetings, then surely making a university fit for inspection to an outside body can’t be too much trouble.  The number of visitors and potential investors that come into my university every week is so great it’s hard to see why not.

Obviously there is a massive difference between schools and universities – one sets the groundwork for the future and the other is an advanced form of learning that’s considered a consumer product.  Frequent inspections and a rigorous set of standards for all is something I would recommend.

So yes, there’s a need to ensure that inspection standards are effective and maybe the QAA doesn’t provide the best service.  That said, surely we need to make sure that the standards are consistent.  Then we can worry about who inspects and enforces.




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Joseph is a French and Spanish to English translator, language enthusiast, and blogger.