I’m extremely disappointed that I have had to miss the QAA Annual Reviewers’ Conference so in an attempt to remain ‘in the loop’ I have spent the morning reading the HEFCE consultation on the future approaches to quality assessment and considering my individual reaction.
I have to say I am extremely pleased to see the continued commitment to student engagement and partnership, with the principles for a quality assessment system including the expectation that students will be ‘meaningfully integrated as partners in the design, monitoring and review of processes to improve the academic quality of their education’ and the acknowledgement of the widely held view that student engagement and partnership is an ‘essential component of future quality assurance and quality assessment arrangements’. When reading the document there were a few areas which raised some concerns for me when considering student engagement, I’m sure these are in no way the only concerns as each individual will no doubt read it with different priorities in mind but I attempted to consider it from the student perspective and how I think it could affect the first hand student experience.
I’m quite interested to see how the commitment to student engagement and partnership will play out. It is clear in the document that student input will be expected to be utilised by the governing body and throughout internal processes but how can we assure this will be done effectively? Even with the growing awareness of the importance of student engagement and partnership and fantastic organisations such as TSEP, which provides resources, training and events that allow for greater sector understanding, effective discussion and sharing of good practice, there are still issues related to implementing effective student partnerships within many institutions. Effective student engagement and partnership is plagued by barriers around the evolving student identity, lack of consistent definition and understanding and lack of effective communication, I sincerely hope the stream of good practice from the sector in these areas isn’t side-lined as a result of the future intentions. As noted there is a clear commitment in the document to internal student engagement and partnership so hopefully any potential fears here are completely unfounded but what about external student engagement? The QAA began using student reviewers in 2009, as a student reviewer myself my views on this will clearly be subjective, however I believe student reviewers are a valuable resource and offer a valid and useful input into educational review. I’m unsure on reading the consultation document if and where any external student input will be utilised, this could of course be misunderstanding on my part, or it could be that this is part of the details to be filled in at a later date, however I think external student input is important and should be considered. From a student perspective it is easy to be very insular, yes context is very important in relation to the student experience however it can sometimes be very difficult to judge your own institution without sufficient knowledge and information about good practice elsewhere; a student may consider that they have a fantastic student representative system without understanding that student representation alone does not constitute partnership.
My next concern is the use of student outcome data as a focus for quality. Recruitment, progression and advancement are clearly important aspects of higher education and suggest an effective student experience but as a student myself I can’t help but be concerned about the idea of reducing my student experience to quantifiable data. I have had a fantastic student experience and I have learnt many things throughout my time as a student but I did not learn them all in the classroom and have not showcased all my learnt experiences during assessment; there is more to university life than the grade you come out with or even how satisfied you say you are by ticking the boxes on the NSS. I would hate for this to be forgotten in the move from a peer review of processes to a review of outcome data and I am therefore very interested to see what student outcome data will look like.
There is one particular quote from the document that caused me to stop and think.
‘We heard clearly during the discussion phase that providers in the English system felt that market pressures were sufficient to incentivise them to ensure that they continue to offer a high quality student academic experience and excellent student outcomes, without the need for a repeated costly and extensive external scrutiny process at the baseline or threshold level.’ (HEFCE, 2015)
I can understand the desire to reduce the repeated burden of institutional review however I was concerned about the belief that market pressures incentivise quality. Is that really the case? Yes you need happy students and good results to attract new students but how you make those students happy and how the grades are achieved matters too. As Staddon and Standish (2012) point out student satisfaction does not necessarily result in quality improvement and an appropriate student experience. In an earlier blog post I disagreed with the idea that students are novices and therefore do not understand the difference between a quality education and a satisfying student experience, however I also argued that it was the creation of a balanced partnership within assuring student satisfaction that was important. Student engagement is not about giving students what they want in order to achieve good student outcomes and NSS scores, it is about working with students to create a community which revolves around mutual understanding and respect; market forces do not necessarily build a community or encourage a balanced relationship.
Derfel Owen suggests that HEFCE have hit the ‘reset’ button on quality, I sincerely hope that this doesn’t hit the ‘reset’ button for student engagement too.
HEFCE (2015). Future approaches to quality assessment in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. [Online]. Available at: http://www.hefce.ac.uk/media/HEFCE,2014/Content/Pubs/2015/201511/2015_11_.pdf. [Accessed: 29 June 2015].
Owen, D. (2015). HEFCE press the quality reset button. [Online] Available at: http://www.hefce.ac.uk/media/HEFCE,2014/Content/Pubs/2015/201511/2015_11_.pdf [Accessed: 29 June 2015].
Staddon, E. and Standish, P. (2012). Improving the Student Experience. Journal of Philosophy of Education. 46 (4): 631-48.