‘Ex­tra­or­di­nary’ OfS rules risk grade in­fla­tion, says for­mer head of QAA

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CON­TENTS - Jack.grove@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

New rules that will re­quire Eng­lish uni­ver­si­ties to de­liver “suc­cess­ful out­comes” for “all” of their stu­dents risk fu­elling grade in­fla­tion, a for­mer head of the Qual­ity As­sur­ance Agency has warned.

In new guid­ance pub­lished on the Of­fice for Stu­dents’ web­site, in­sti­tu­tions are told that they will need to “meet cer­tain con­di­tions” to reg­is­ter with the new higher ed­u­ca­tion reg­u­la­tor, al­low­ing them to re­ceive tu­ition fees via the state-backed loans sys­tem or ac­cess grant fund­ing.

To meet the reg­u­la­tor’s new rules, in­sti­tu­tions are told that they “must”, from Au­gust 2019, “de­liver for all [their] stu­dents suc­cess­ful out­comes which are val­ued by em­ploy­ers, or which en­able fur­ther study” and “en­sure that qual­i­fi­ca­tions awarded hold their value over time, in line with recog­nised stan­dards”.

How­ever, Peter Wil­liams, who was chief ex­ec­u­tive of the QAA from 2001 to 2009, told Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion that he was shocked by the “ex­tra­or­di­nary” con­di­tions of reg­is­tra­tion.

“‘ De­liv­er­ing’ suc­cess­ful out­comes for all stu­dents would seem to amount to higher ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions be­ing re­quired to guar­an­tee a de­gree for ev­ery stu­dent,” said Mr Wil­liams.

The con­di­tion’s word­ing might even im­ply the “guar­an­tee of a ‘good’ de­gree – a first or 2:1”, given that that is now typ­i­cally viewed as the def­i­ni­tion of a “suc­cess­ful” out­come by most stu­dents and em­ploy­ers, he added.

“This is very dan­ger­ous non­sense for the Of­fice for Stu­dents to be ped­dling,” said Mr Wil­liams, who added that “at face value, OfS’ ‘con­di­tions’ would seem to sug­gest that de­grees are com­modi­ties to be bought and sold”.

The OfS guid­ance to in­sti­tu­tions, pub­lished on 1 April, mir­rors the con­tent of its 166-page reg­u­la­tory frame­work, which was re­leased at the end of Fe­bru­ary fol­low­ing a five­month con­sul­ta­tion with the sec­tor.

That doc­u­ment ex­plains that the OfS will as­sess “suc­cess­ful out­comes” by ex­am­in­ing “a range of stu­dent out­comes in­di­ca­tors”, in­clud­ing con­tin­u­a­tion rates, de­gree out­comes and grad­u­ate em­ploy­ment lev­els.

How­ever, Mr Wil­liams ques­tioned whether the new reg­u­la­tor “un­der­stands the im­pli­ca­tions of what it is say­ing” by stat­ing that “all” stu­dents should have suc­cess­ful out­comes, adding that he won­dered how “such slack draft­ing could be per­mit­ted in a high-pro­file reg­u­la­tor of this sort”.

Ask­ing uni­ver­si­ties to guar­an­tee the value of their de­grees into the fu­ture was also un­re­al­is­tic, added Mr Wil­liams, who said this abil­ity “is surely not in any­one’s gift”.

“For in­stance, is a com­put­ing de­gree from the 1980s as valu­able now as when it was awarded?” he asked.

Ac­cord­ing to the reg­u­la­tory frame­work, the OfS will judge if a qual­i­fi­ca­tion is hold­ing its value by re­fer­ring to assess­ments by the QAA on provider stan­dards, stu­dent data in­clud­ing de­gree out­comes and how they change over time, and com­plaints from stu­dents, staff or oth­ers “about the value of [a provider’s] qual­i­fi­ca­tions”.

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