Higher Education Funding Council England (HEFCE)
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Next steps in risk-based quality assurance

HEFCE has published the outcomes of its consultation on the future direction of quality assurance in higher education (notes 1 and 2).

The outcomes have been agreed by the HEFCE Board and will come into operation from the academic year 2013-14. They form a strong and positive package which puts students at its heart, and achieves better regulation by focusing effort where it is most needed.

The revised approach, which builds on existing good practice, will protect and enhance the student experience through robust and rigorous reviews of the quality assurance of teaching and learning in universities and colleges, and the standards of their awards. Students will continue to play a key role, as central partners in the quality assurance and enhancement of their higher education experience.

Future institutional reviews will be more integrated, and more closely tailored to individual institutional circumstances. There will no longer be a mid-cycle review, and institutions with a longer track record of assuring their quality and standards will be reviewed every six years (note 3).  

HEFCE will formally ask the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) to adopt the new approach, and the QAA will consult on implementing it in time for the 2013-14 academic year.

Minister for Universities, David Willetts, said:

'The sector has responded positively to HEFCE's consultation. These proposals cut the burden of red tape on our universities. As a result we will have a system that will focus the Quality Assurance Agency’s effort where it will have most impact, balancing better regulation with protecting the interests of students and supporting the enhancement of quality across the sector.'

HEFCE Chief Executive Sir Alan Langlands said:

‘Quality assurance is not simply about meeting a set of minimum standards. It drives improvement, dissemination of best practice and the achievement of excellence.

‘This is a balanced package of measures which recognises the crucial importance of student involvement in quality assurance and enhancement activities.

‘It will also result in better regulation through varying the frequency, nature and intensity of review.’ 


1. The publication is available on the HEFCE web-site. There were over 130 responses to the consultation. Over three-quarters of respondents supported the three key principles HEFCE had identified as essential to the risk-based approach:

  • the retention of a universal system for higher education which continues to promote enhancement
  • an approach which is robust and rigorous, enabling HEFCE to carry out its statutory duty to secure assessments of quality for higher education providers that have access to public funding
  • an approach which enables students to continue to play a prominent role in assessing their own academic experiences.

There was also wide cross-sector support for a range of other proposals:

  • to reduce unnecessary burden and achieve better regulation, targeting the QAA’s efforts where they are most needed
  • to tailor external review to the individual circumstances of providers by modifying the frequency, nature and intensity of review
  • to ensure transparency, for example through the application of clear criteria and the publication on the QAA website of a rolling programme of reviews. 

2. The consultation followed a commitment in the Government’s higher education white paper, ‘Students at the heart of the system’, and subsequent technical consultation, to introduce ‘a risk-based quality assurance regime that focuses regulatory effort where it will have most impact’ and which would give greater prominence to the interests of students. The Government asked HEFCE ‘to consult on the criteria against which overall risk should be assessed and the frequency of review, with a view to achieving very substantial deregulatory change for institutions that can demonstrate low risk’. HEFCE was also asked to consult on ‘a set of ad hoc triggers which would be central to a risk-based approach to quality assurance’. (White paper, paragraph 3.20)

3. HEFCE is asking the QAA to discontinue any form of mid-cycle review given that there are already safeguards in place, such as the QAA’s Concerns Scheme, for institutions which have continuing issues to address between reviews. HEFCE is also asking the QAA to review those providers with a shorter track record of assuring quality and standards at a more frequent interval of four years. A small number of respondents to the consultation called for consideration of a ten-year review cycle for institutions with a longer track record of assuring their quality and standards, but HEFCE has concluded that the arguments in support of the student interest, continuous enhancement, safeguarding of the international reputation of UK higher education, and regular assessment under our statutory duty outweigh the calls for any longer interval.


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