Quality Assurance: Balancing Institutional Demands And Student Experience

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This article explores the role of Quality Assurance (QA) in higher education and explains how academics can use it to improve their students’ experiences at university.

What is QA?

Quality assurance is a system of auditing the structure and performance of units, qualifications and programmes. All universities have an internal procedure for doing this on a regular basis, meaning that most departments have their programmes checked at least once every five years. The idea is to ensure that standards are maintained and that departments and their programmes fit in with the strategic plan of the institution.

Nationally, the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) is responsible for QA across institutions. They produce the subject benchmarking statements which define the content of a particular degree and explain what skills students should gain when studying a particular subject. The QAA also undertake periodic institution-level reviews of all HE and FE institutions in the UK.

How will it affect you as an academic?

At the start of your academic career you may be blissfully unaware of QA as you concentrate on teaching seminars and publishing your research. Your first contact with it will be as a lecturer when you propose a new unit of your own design. The paperwork that you fill in to propose the new unit is part of the QA structure of your institution.

Once you have been at a university for several years, you will probably be involved in a programme review, which means that your university’s QA teams check your department’s offering against internal and external standards and strategies. As a lecturer, your role will be to take part in departmental discussions about proposed changes and to submit the paperwork for your units to be collated by your head of school or programme leader. As you can tell, QA involves a lot of form-filling!

However, you really become immersed in the QA system when you take on the job of programme leader (either undergraduate or postgraduate). With the help of administration team, you will lead your team of lecturers through the process of review and will be in charge of leading discussions about the shape of the programme by responding to student feedback and market research, proposing the programme to faculty or university committees, collating unit descriptors and writing a descriptor for the entire programme.

How can you use this procedure to enhance student experience?

At first glance this aspect of an academic’s job seems horribly bureaucratic with little impact on the day to day business of teaching students. However, it is important to see this in the context of your entire practice as a teacher.

  • It provides concrete evidence when you claim at open days or induction to be a good university! If you have undertaken QA properly, you can be 100% sure that your provision is of a decent standard.
  • Programme reviews offer the chance to take stock and to assess what has worked and what has failed in the current programme. Assessment regimes can be improved, bibliographies updated and teaching techniques made more innovative.
  • Student input is highly valued. Focus groups will be initiated and their thoughts fed back to university management, with the department expected to directly respond to their thoughts.

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