Published: 22 July 2022
Two recent reports have brought into focus the increasing role of governors in helping to maintain standards in academic quality. On 14 July, the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) published a Policy Note: Why it is time for university governors to do more on academic quality, written Dr Alex Bols, the Deputy Chief Executive of GuildHE and a university governor, who reflects on the growing responsibility that boards of higher education institutions in England have on issues of academic quality. On 21 July, the Office for Students (OfS) published an Insight Brief: Maintaining the credibility of degrees, which looks at the evidence for degree inflation and at what universities and the OfS are doing and plan to do to address the implications for future cohorts of students.
- The hugely complex area of academic quality and standards in higher education is increasingly the focus of ministers and the regulator, leading to the debate around “low value” courses and the introduction by the Office for Students of the B3 conditions of registration, including numerical baselines for student continuation, completion and graduate employment rates (HEPI p4)
- Governors have a greater role in the oversight of academic quality and standards than ever before. Increasingly, governing bodies have direct responsibility for academic quality issues through the assurances they make, adherence to the Office for Students’ Public Interest Governance Principles and meeting their ongoing conditions of registration (HEPI p3)
- The sector needs to get better at articulating the benefits of a diverse, innovative and responsive higher education sector which is able to develop new courses based on student demand and the needs of local and national economies while robustly protecting academic standards through strong governance (HEPI p1)
- In particular, this means getting to grips with issues such as grade inflation and demonstrating that the sector is robustly safeguarding its own academic standards (HEPI p2)
- The OfS metrics on continuation, completion and progression as well as the data for the new Teaching Excellence Framework can provide a useful framework for governing bodies to be able to consider these issues in more depth (HEPI p3)
- Governing bodies should reflect on their own expertise and understanding of academic life to facilitate effective governor oversight of teaching and learning (HEPI p4)
- Governors should receive regular information on academic issues, including Degree Outcomes Statements and an annual quality report drawing out key performance indicators (HEPI p2)
- There should be a regular review of the OfS’s ongoing registration conditions, including tracking of the new B3 metrics through Red / Amber / Green ratings being presented to the Audit and Risk Committee. Where there are concerns, action plans or even internal audit reports should be forthcoming to reassure the governing body that measures are being taken (HEPI p5)
- Between 17.4 and 24.4 percentage points of the increase in the proportion of class degrees awarded since 2010/11 is “unexplained achievement”. Such statistics undermine the credibility of degrees and calls into question whether the classification system is fit for purpose (OfS p7)
- As most disruptive aspects of the pandemic will now no longer be placing pressure on assessment practices, the OfS expects universities’ requirements for 1sts and 2:1s, and the proportions of students attaining these classifications, to revert to their pre-pandemic levels. Universities UK has also agreed to this (OfS p7)
- OfS will focus investigation and enforcement activity on cases where substantial increases cannot be explained, or where the explanations raise concerns - either by data analysis or by other evidence. It will not investigate every institution where there may be a cause for concern, but will target institutions, based on available information (OfS p7)
Implications for governance:
The HEPI paper plots the increased focus on academic quality in higher education and the central role it now occupies in government policy. The report author, Alex Bols, argues that as a result, governing bodies need to up their game to provide meaningful oversight of the issue. It is no longer an option, he says, for governors to rely on assurances from academic boards.
Because of the impact of the pandemic, governors have perhaps had more detail and input into developments in teaching and learning and assessment than in previous years, which could leave them well placed to meet the clear expectations now placed on them by the OfS in relation to maintaining standards – including around degree classifications.
Issues of quality and standards are fast rising up institutional risk registers and as recent Advance HE governors’ views have revealed, many institutions are undertaking audits and deep dives of subjects and courses to explore the metrics on continuation, completion and graduate employment that universities are now to be judged by.
Alex Bols proposes that governing bodies should reflect on their own expertise and understanding of academic standards and how to maintain them. He emphasises the importance of receiving regular information from the executive on academic issues and regular reviews of provision. Where shortcomings are exposed, action plans should be drawn up.
The most recent update of the Committee of University Chairs (CUC) Code of Governance outlines that the ‘governing body must actively seek and receive assurance that academic governance is robust and effective’. Alex Bols argues that the word ‘actively’ suggests that this is more than simply relying on senates or academic board to uphold standards.
As he explains in a press release accompanying the HEPI report: “We must expand and deepen the understanding of higher education governing bodies on academic issues. This should include giving them clearer and better information to help them fulfil their functions, as well as ensuring a better balance between the university governing body and the academic board or Senate.”
Governors may want to consider how active they are in their own oversight and whether the suggested arrangements and processes could be useful in their own institutions.
One of the areas of particular attention from the government is the rise in the proportion of good degrees. The OfS insight brief follows on from its analysis of degree classifications from 2010/11 to 2020/21 which uncovered levels of achievement which could not be explained when taking prior attainment and student characteristics into account.
Governors will note that the OfS has endorsed a recent Universities UK commitment to reverse the jump in degree results seen during the pandemic. UUK’s pledge will involve working with governing bodies to support understanding and scrutiny. By the end of the year, UUK and GuildHE members will publish degree outcome statements, setting out actions to return to pre-pandemic levels of classification.
The regulator warns that there will be more research and inquiry into the issue of degree inflation, over and above the Covid years, which will be made public. More regulation to correct unexplained increases “where this is appropriate” could be on the cards.
Investigation and enforcement activity will be focused on cases where substantial increases cannot be explained, either by OfS data analysis or by other evidence, or where the explanations given by institutions raise concerns. It emphasises that this does not mean that every provider with an increase in the proportion of firsts will be investigated but says that intervention will be “targeted”.
“We are willing to intervene to protect the credibility of awards, and would expect to report on the findings of our investigations,” it said.
Governors may want to reflect on their university’s degree classification profiles, the trends over time and the specific reasons for any substantial increases in the proportion of top grades.
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