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HEFCE - The Future of Quality Assessment

The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) have launched a review into the 'Future of Quality Assessment'. Details for the review can be found on the HEFCE website. The submission produced by the Geological Society and the Committee of Head of University Geosciences Departments can be found below:

Submitted 27 February 2015

Q1. Have we identified the trends that you expect to see over the next decade? Have we missed any likely changes that you feel should be included in a discussion about the most appropriate arrangements for quality assessment by 2025?

This response is submitted jointly by the Geological Society of London (GSL) and the Committee of Heads of University Geosciences Departments (CHUGD) – see response to Q20 for more details.

We have not offered responses to all the questions in this consultation. We recognise that a number of these are aimed principally at HEIs, but we hope that our perspective as single subject bodies independent of any particular HEI is helpful. We would be pleased to discuss further any of our responses, to answer any other questions, and to provide any help we can as HEFCE develops future quality assessment (QA) arrangements. Given that QA is principally carried out within HEIs, and is inspected at the HEI level, we believe that disciplinary bodies such as ours which bring together those working in different institutions have a valuable complementary role to play, not least through the accreditation of degree programmes.

In the context set out in the discussion document, especially given the expectation of continuing public funding constraints, greater engagement with the public and with government at all levels will be vitally important for the HE sector. Effective QA of teaching and of students’ learning experience (as well as of research) which is transparent and accessible to those outside the sector will be essential in supporting the value proposition being made by universities, and therefore in seeking sustained financial and political support. Good QA is also a potentially valuable tool for ensuring that limited resources are applied as effectively as possible.

A coordinated approach to QA across the UK HE sector will be important given the expectation that expansion and ever-greater diversity of the sector will continue. This will be of particular value as HEIs and other bodies seek to expand their own overseas operations, and to help with overseas capacity building more broadly. There is considerable potential to enhance coordination and collaborative working across HEIs by building on links and networks within subject communities (for example, between geoscience departments).

Employers and students have a shared requirement for high-quality and relevant training to develop vocational, technical and professional skills in a wide range of disciplines. In the geosciences, as in many other areas, the supply of such skills will also be essential to future national prosperity; the supply of raw materials, water and energy to the population and industry; and construction, infrastructure development, remediation of contaminated land and other vital services. The university sector has a growing role in providing such training and skills development, and this trend seems set to continue. These considerations should be at the heart of future QA systems.

Q5. What are the characteristics of a quality assessment system that would incentivise, support and recognise outstanding learning and teaching? Should the scrutiny of institutional quality improvement activities be a component of a quality assessment system?

The discussion document refers variously to ‘excellent’, ‘outstanding’ and ‘world-leading’ learning and teaching. These terms are not necessarily synonymous. Excellence and leadership can be demonstrated (and can be of value) in a number of contexts – for example, nationally or regionally rather than at a global level, or within disciplines or other groupings. Future cultures of QA would benefit from careful thought about strategic objectives regarding excellence, leadership and the setting of best practice, and what behaviours are being incentivised. It is not self-evident that a demonstrable link exists between institutional quality improvement and outstanding learning and teaching. Nor is it clear whether a local or top-down approach to improving outcomes is being espoused. In considering future arrangements, it would be beneficial to consider and articulate clearly how attributes of QA systems are expected to support delivery of strategic objectives.

Q6. What do stakeholders want from a set of quality assessment arrangements?

 Students will want to be assured that their degrees have currency and value in the employment marketplace. So transparency in the qualification they are working towards, clearly benchmarked against those offered by other institutions, is essential. Students are also likely to value clarity and transparency about the experience they will gain in achieving their qualification, which may (and probably should) differ from one provider to another. Such differences in student experience should be a key factor in defining the marketplace (rather than differences in quality and standards of qualifications).

Employers will also seek transparency and will wish to be assured that qualifications equip students with knowledge and skills they will need in the workplace. This is not to say that employers look to universities to do their job for them in training employees – but that there needs to be mutual recognition of their interdependence. In the geoscience sector, there are strong relationships between employers and HEIs, and a good understanding of the relationship between training at university level in core skills and continuing professional development in employment. Accreditation of degree programmes has a vital role to play here. GSL accredits undergraduate and postgraduate geoscience degree programmes in the UK, and increasingly overseas; CHUGD members play an important role in the accreditation process, and highly value the accreditation scheme, which brings together employers and HEIs to ensure the continuing relevance of qualifications and the skills they seek to develop.

Government should also have a strong interest in ensuring the health of the ‘skills pipeline’ and in addressing current and future skills shortages, for the benefit of the UK’s economy and the well-being of the population. This is not always evident in the development and implementation of HE policy.

Q7. Should we seek to demonstrate to stakeholders that academic standards are comparable between providers? And between subject areas? if so, what assurances should be sought about such comparabilities?

 External examiners have an important role to play. The external examiner system should be strengthened through development of recognised best practice, and opportunities for external examiners to meet and share such best practice.

Q14. What should the purposes of the Quality Code and Subject Benchmark Statements be, if any, ten years from now? Are these the right external reference points around which providers should continue to design and review their academic provision in the forthcoming decade?

The Subject Benchmark Statements have a potentially important role. A key determinant in whether they will be useful is how they are developed and maintained. We were pleased to be consulted when the benchmark statement for geoscience programmes was most recently revised, and that there was recognition that it should align closely with the criteria for accreditation.

Q16. Should there be a mechanism to pick up any sector-wide issues of quality or standards which could be improved? If so, how should this best be done? Conversely, should there be a formal, sector-wide mechanism for disseminating good practice in learning and teaching, and enabling its uptake? If so, how should this best be done?

The Higher Education Academy (HEA) has played a useful role in recent years in disseminating good practice in recent years in the Geography, Earth and Environmental Science (GEES) sector, having taken up that function from the former GEES subject centre. Significant cuts to the HEA have resulted in the GEES facilitator post being discontinued, and there is effectively no continuing capacity at the HEA to support our sector. We understand that the HEA will be subject to further significant cuts, and that its continuing existence may be under threat. Together with other GEES subject bodies, we worked effectively with the HEA coordinators. GSL’s Higher Education Network (with which CHUGD also works closely) is a locus for valuable expertise in geoscience pedagogy, and does what it can to share best practice through meetings and online discussion. But the resources and capacity it has for such work are very limited, and it has also lost the focal point the HEA provided for interaction with other GEES disciplines. We would be pleased to discuss how expertise within organisations like ours might most effectively be tapped to develop and disseminate best practice in future.

Q20. Are the questions posed in this discussion document the right ones for the context set out above? Are there other deep questions that are missing from this discussion document?

 A common concern across university geoscience departments (and the HE sector more widely) is the vast collective effort required to generate statistics in standard specified forms (which may not be an easy match with how departments and HEIs are structured and organise their activities). This imperative is driven in large part by the value placed on league tables, and by a culture which strongly incentivises institutions to advance their positions in such rankings. Unless the value that this system and culture delivers can be demonstrated, this is arguably a huge collective waste of effort and time. A better approach may be to devise effective methods of enhancing good practice across the sector and to decrease reliance on competition based on league tables to maintain and improve standards, incentivising more productive activities and behaviours on the part of individuals, departments and HEIs. It would be valuable for the review group to ask whether such a change of approach could achieve outcomes which better deliver strategic objectives, and how this could be achieved.

As noted above, this response is submitted jointly by the Geological Society of London (GSL) and the Committee of Heads of University Geosciences Departments (CHUGD).

GSL is the UK’s learned and professional body for geoscience, with more than 11,500 Fellows (members) worldwide. The Fellowship encompasses those working in industry, academia and government with a broad range of perspectives on policy-relevant science, and the Society is a leading communicator of this science to government bodies, those in education, and other non-technical audiences.

CHUGD is the subject association of Geoscience (geology, applied geology, Earth science, geophysics, geochemistry and some environmental science) departments/schools based within universities in the British Isles. It promotes discussion and exchange of information between departments and provides a point of contact between these and professional, government and quality control agencies.