Academic Quality: The Higher Education Context

The COVID-19 pandemic threw the traditional methods of teaching off track entirely overnight, leaving Higher Education institutions across the sector scrambling to instigate changes to assessments and policies in order to maintain teaching and quality standards for the 2019/20 academic year.

When the longevity of the pandemic, particularly for the 2020/21 academic year, became apparent, universities set their minds to creating a structured plan to adjust their programmes and create a method of teaching, either using the blended model or entirely virtual, that would replicate the same quality and standard that the typical face to face academic experience entails. There are an array of questions that need to be answered around academic quality before we can deem whether this has been a successful approach to maintaining quality for the academic year 2020/21. Namely; do students have an awareness of what quality is? Who is responsible for maintaining quality and standards and what happens when they are not upheld? Should a lower quality education mean lower tuition fees? You would think, or hope so, but is it always this simple, and what part does the government play in the quality of the Higher Education sector?

What is Academic Quality?

Academic quality is a term used to describe the effectiveness of learning and teaching methods, opportunities, and resources at guiding students to achieve their degrees. It takes into account the effectiveness of academic support, assessments and learning opportunities.

However, there have been debates around what quality actually is, and the official definition of it in Higher Education, as different professional bodies and regulators apply different variables as measures of quality. For example, the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) focusses on measures that contribute to students achieving their degree, compared to the Office for Students (OfS) which places more of an emphasis on value for money, student satisfaction and post-graduation outcome data. This does pose the question that if the bodies responsible for ‘quality’, or those who have influence over it do not have a clear cut definition of what it means in Higher Education, how can students be expected to effectively challenge their universities if students lack, through no fault of their own, a specific understanding of what quality is?

Well, despite the debate around the specific definition and the scope for measuring quality, there are measures in place that aim to ensure quality is upheld across higher education institutions in the UK.

QAA

The QAA are the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education. They are an independent organisation that regulates standards and quality by directing quality assessment reviews, providing guidance to universities and conducting a range of research around quality in Higher Education. They are able to steer universities into following the quality guidance provided so that students are effectively able to achieve their degrees.

How can students ensure quality on their course?

Academic Representation

The Academic Representation scheme is run by the Students’ Union at Royal Holloway and consists of course reps, department reps and school reps. As the VP Education for the SU, I also play a key role in the academic representation of the student body as a whole. If a student or cohort feels as if there course if not showcasing a higher quality standard of learning, they can express these concerns to one of these groups of representatives, and the issue can be scaled up to the appropriate level, depending on the severity and the level of action needed to achieve a resolution.

Complaints Procedure

You can submit a complaint if you feel that there is an issue that has affected the quality of your learning opportunities or around a standard of a service that has been provided. There are set grounds for appealing based on: teaching and assessment, University services and other services. Teaching and assessment examples include the delivery of teaching (including lecture preparation, content and resources), tutorial support, academic pastoral care, staff behaviour, the provision of academic advice, and guidance and supervision for dissertations. It further includes complaints about deviations from the programme specification, curriculum content, quality issues and withdrawal of courses. There are specific grounds under these examples that would need to be met to pursue a potentially successful complaint and unfortunately, it is a long and complex process that if often unsuccessful.

Before submitting a Formal Complaint, you must raise your issue informally. If you are having problems with your course then this will generally be with your Head of Department or Head of School. Formal complaints can take up to three months for the initial investigation so informal, early resolution is preferable. Find out how the SU Advice Centre can support you with a complaint here.

What do the University do to ensure Quality standards are upheld? How are the SU and Students represented in this process?

Myself and a PGT student representative sit on a College committee called the Quality Assurance & Standards Committee (QASC). The committee is responsible for overseeing the delivery of the University’s Quality Assurance Framework reviewing student feedback data (such as NSS data), to ensure the effectiveness of student voice in the University’s quality framework, course validations and more. Recent discussions have included discussions around assessment criteria’s in response to COVID-19, reviewing comments for improvements from External Examiners and discussing a report on equal opportunities and Undergraduate student performance.

COVID-19 and Quality Standards

Royal Holloway adopted the blended learning model for the 2020/21 academic year, allowing students the option to attend face-to-face teaching where possible, whilst also allowing students to study online. Extra provisions were added to improve online teaching, such as major Moodle changes, adaptations to methods and forms of assessment, and widespread lecture recording. These additions were put in place to try and ensure that the quality of teaching that students would receive would be maintained. Although it has been an incredibly tough academic year for both students and staff, learning outcomes are continuing to be met and student performance is positive. This suggests that students continue to be provided with the quality standards expected of a Higher Education institution in the majority of cases.

Nevertheless, this does not take away from that fact that in universities across the country, students, especially those who have a heavy practical element to their degrees have not been able to access facilities or been able to take part in teaching as was advertised to them when they first enrolled at university, often through no fault of the institution alone. Yet, rightly so, it leaves a burning question in students’ mind of why they continue to pay the same fees for what is in many students’ opinions a lower quality university experience.

Realistically, it is not feasible for universities to be providing partial tuition fee refunds to all students without financial backing from the government. When questioned about the quality of learning students have received during the pandemic, the government have responded claiming that:

“It would be unacceptable for a student to be paying those tuition fees and not getting that quality or not getting that support.”

“If the universities are not providing the quality then they cannot command that price.”

So who is to be responsible for the perceived reduction in quality of learning? Is it universities for continuing to offer certain courses that have not been able to be delivered in the same way as pre-pandemic (although who knew how this academic year would pan out)? Or the government for so far refusing to support universities with tuition fee funding? How will potential reductions in quality impact students, especially those taking practical degrees, for their future job prospects?

Universities across the country, and Royal Holloway in particular, spent months planning, organising and rearranging their learning styles to ensure that quality standards are upheld, with little guidance and clarity from the government, only to then hear statements like the above that wholly shifts the blame on to institutions who have had to battle ever-changing circumstances on little to no notice for the best part of a year. Additionally, it is not effective for students to simply be signposted to a complaints procedure, in which the process is problematic in itself, without specific guidance on what quality actually is from bodies like the OfS.

There remain a range of unanswered questions, but a reoccurring theme in the thought process behind these questions is what the true definition of quality is in the Higher Education sector and how this responsibility and accountability should be distributed. Fundamentally I believe that on a national scale, not enough is being done to both ensure that students have received the high-quality university experience that they were promised this year, and to communicate to students about their rights when it comes to academic quality so they can make informed choices and hold institutions to account where needed.

Fundamentally, I believe that the government have so far failed to provide the clarity required in these exceptional circumstances on what is deemed to be a high-quality university experience like students were promised this year and that not enough is being done to communicate to students about their rights when it comes to academic quality so they can make informed choices and hold institutions to account where needed. There is not necessarily one sole responsible party, and there is certainly an appreciation amongst the student body of the effort that has been made by universities and lecturers to deliver a good experience, but there is certainly scope for more work to be done to ensure students are not disadvantaged in their future careers because of the quality of their experience during this pandemic.