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Quality response

Douglas Blackstock argues that higher education has learned important lessons from responding to the coronavirus 

In recent weeks, images of forlorn students in local lockdown peering through the windows of their residences have filled our screens and newspaper inches. And with regular news of spikes in Covid-19 cases among student populations, it has sometimes felt like higher education is being bounced from one unwelcome crisis to the next.

Long before the word ‘coronavirus’ was in common usage outside epidemiology circles, higher education was under scrutiny. Government ministers in England regularly sent out warnings about the need to address unconditional offers, grade inflation, essay mills and perceived ‘low-quality’ courses, with the indicators for this likely to include retention rates and students getting graduate-level jobs.

A commitment to take action against ‘low-quality courses’ was in the 2019 Conservative Party manifesto. Meanwhile, articles about too many students at too many universities not getting value for money have become a staple feature in think tank and national press opinion pieces.

Yet despite the often negative coverage, higher education providers have responded well to Covid-19 and have laid the foundations for innovative and exciting developments that can bring long-term benefits.

Emergency pivot

The extraordinary pivot seen in March showed that higher education was capable of implementing emergency business continuity plans and ensuring the safety of staff and students, before moving on to planning for teaching and assessment for the remainder of the year. The summer was then dominated by complex arrangements for admissions and transitions for new and returning students, in the context of uncertainty over the management of A-level and other level 3 qualifications. Thankfully for us, the emergency arrangements for grading of the Quality Assurance Agency’s Access to Higher Education Diploma worked effectively, with very few appeals and complaints.

During March and September, the QAA worked with members in the four nations of the UK to produce 29 sets of guidance and other supporting resources to help higher education providers plan provision. In developing these resources, we did not seek to produce new rules but to reflect emerging practice as institutions sought to ensure that academic standards and quality were secure. I personally undertook a series of conversations with more than 150 senior institutional leaders, and their willingness and enthusiasm to share emerging and effective practice was extraordinary. The QAA also worked to secure positive engagement between higher education and professional, statutory and regulatory bodies.

Institutions faced myriad challenges. Decisions about approaches to remote learning and teaching needed to consider, among many other things, how to provide effective support for students with disabilities and what adjustments might be needed for students with caring responsibilities.

What about those experiencing digital poverty due to poor hardware or connectivity? And support for students who are self-isolating—or for those who live in countries with restrictions on internet access? What actions are needed to support students who might be vulnerable to approaches from essay mills? Should a ‘no detriment’ policy be introduced? Should remote proctoring be used for assessment? And so on.

The core and common practices of the Quality Code for Higher Education underpinned the guidance we produced, allowing providers to adopt institution-specific responses to sustain academic standards, which has been a huge positive.

Future developments

But what I have found particularly interesting during this period has been the way in which responses and innovation have given an insight into some of the future developments we might see in higher education provision. For example, typically in relation to programme design, there can be a temptation to focus on technologies and tools of delivery at the expense of pedagogy. However, the range of issues and questions needed to be addressed in recent months has necessitated a focus on pedagogical approaches to offer effective support to students. This presents a genuine opportunity to place positive pedagogical practice at the heart of all programme design.

One area of potential challenge that became clear through our conversations with providers was that the rapid pivot to greater use of digital delivery, and the speed at which change took place, highlighted the variety and disparate use of terminology for the digital learning experiences on offer. To support providers in building a common language to describe digital approaches to programme delivery, the QAA developed a taxonomy for digital learning. This allows a consistent approach to often interchangeable terms such as ‘online’, ‘virtual’ or ‘digital’ learning and can help students make informed choices about the programmes they are applying for. The benefits will last well after the impact of the pandemic has faded.

Perhaps most significantly, the need to innovate and offer flexibility during the pandemic has fed directly into a developing narrative around the UK about a modular approach to higher education, sitting alongside traditional three-year and four-year degrees. This will allow for the ‘unbundling’ of degree programmes and the accumulation of credits, encapsulated in a recent speech by the prime minister in which he spoke of a lifelong learning guarantee. Higher education would be less well prepared for such increased flexibility without the adaptations necessitated by the pandemic.

Changes are underway across UK higher education. In England, a white paper is soon to be published and we still wait to see what aspects of the Augar review are to be implemented. A Scottish Funding Council review promises significant change, and the publication of a draft tertiary education and research bill in Wales heralds the introduction of a new regulatory regime.

UK higher education has risen exceptionally well to the challenges posed by Covid-19. I am convinced that the lessons learned, underpinned by a demonstrable commitment to the maintenance of quality and standards, also leave it well placed to meet the inevitable challenges and opportunities arising from reform.

Douglas Blackstock is chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency.