10.1 The maintenance and assurance of standards of awards and quality of provision across higher education has been one of the most important aspects of our work. One of our terms of reference stated that: ‘standards of degrees and other higher education qualifications should be at least maintained, and assured.’

10.2 Students need to be clear about the requirements of the programmes to which they are committed, and about the levels of achievement expected of them. Employers want higher education to be more explicit about what they can expect from candidates for jobs, whether they have worked at sub-degree, degree, or postgraduate level. Existing arrangements for safeguarding standards are insufficiently clear to carry conviction with those who perceive present quality and standards to be unsatisfactory. We believe there is much to be gained by greater explicitness and clarity about standards and the levels of achievement required for different awards.

10.3 We believe the best progress will be made by building upon existing practice, recognising that each institution is responsible for its own standards, but at the same time engaging the whole academic community in sharing a collective responsibility for standards and quality of provision. This needs to incorporate a clarity of approach which enables those inside and outside higher education to have confidence in the effectiveness and fairness of the arrangements. Uniformity of programmes and national curricula, one possible approach to the development of national standards, would deny higher education the vitality, excitement and challenge that comes from institutions consciously pursuing distinctive purposes, with academics having scope to pursue their own scholarship and enthusiasms in their teaching. The task facing higher education is to reconcile that desirable diversity with achievement of reasonable consistency in standards of awards.

10.4 For some programmes, however, the setting of some form of core national curriculum may be appropriate, for example in medicine where doctors need to be trained to consistent standards, and in teacher training where the existence of the national curriculum in schools demands a degree of consistency.

10.5 In this chapter we address:

  • the present position on qualifications and standards;
  • the development of a framework of qualifications;
  • the standards of awards;
  • quality assurance of provision;
  • the role of the Quality Assurance Agency.

The present position on quality and standards

10.6 In Chapter 3 we described the ways in which quality is assured at the national level and the changes to existing mechanisms as a result of the creation of the new Quality Assurance Agency. Institutions of higher education and their staff have demonstrated great commitment to ensuring the quality of provision over the last decade, at a time of an expansion of student numbers unmatched by increases in funding. Indeed, the systems in the United Kingdom (UK) for assuring the quality of higher education provision are among the most rigorous in the world.

10.7 But the expansion of student numbers has put the existing quality assurance arrangements under strain. The system of external examiners alone cannot guarantee comparability of standards across a diverse mass system of higher education. In some areas professional bodies are expressing concern about present arrangements. There have been a few highly publicised cases where concerns exist about the adequacy of arrangements to ensure that quality and standards are safeguarded where an institution franchises programmes to another, whether in this country or overseas. We are also concerned about the low level of confidence among some employers about standards of qualifications awarded.

10.8 We believe there is a need to develop quality assurance practices which allow for diversity throughout the system, yet ensure that diversity is not an excuse for low standards or unacceptable quality. In listing these strains on the system and making a range of proposals, our concern is to maintain the high global reputation which higher education in the UK has justifiably earned. We are no less concerned to ensure that students who commit themselves to several years of study can be assured that the awards they earn continue to be respected and valued. The importance of these issues becomes the greater as we look forward to further growth in the number of students in higher education.

A national framework of qualifications

10.9 An important element in our approach to standards is a framework of qualifications broad enough to cover the whole range of achievement, consistent in terminology, and well understood within and outside higher education.

10.10 At present, there is no consistent rationale for the structure or nomenclature of awards across higher education. Most substantively, at the postgraduate level, the terms postgraduate diploma and certificate have little common meaning across institutions. There is considerable confusion about the ‘M’ (Masters) title which is awarded for a variety of types of programmes. For example, the awarding of a Masters degree can be for:

  • the fourth year (or the fifth year in Scotland) of an undergraduate programme – essentially advanced undergraduate work (MEng etc.);
  • a postgraduate conversion programme (where the standard of the programme is sometimes below that of an undergraduate programme in the same subject);
  • an undergraduate degree awarded by one of the four Scottish ancient universities;
  • a specialist programme of one/two years in duration (such as the MSc, MA);
  • no additional work, as in the Oxbridge tradition.

10.11 Not surprisingly, the Harris report on postgraduate education (see also Chapter 11) concluded that, although there had always been diversity in postgraduate titles, it had reached the point of being unhelpful, and that in a number of cases it was positively misleading.1 We concluded that this situation had arisen as a result of a ‘market system’ operating during a period of increased demand for postgraduate qualifications without an adequate framework or control mechanism. The problem of reliance on such a market system is that by the time the market has corrected the worst examples of ambiguous standards, damage may have been done to the whole sector.

10.12 This is a salutary warning for undergraduate education. If greater market influences were to be introduced without an adequate framework or mechanisms to ensure the consistent use of titles and corresponding level of award, great damage could be done.

10.13 At the degree level in England, there is a strong perception that a three-year ordinary degree represents a failed honours degree. In Scotland, the three-year ordinary or general degree has more standing, with about 30 per cent of all students graduating with this degree, the majority through choice.

10.14 At the sub-degree level, there are differences in the use of award titles across the UK. The most obvious difference is that between the Higher National Certificate (HNC) and the Higher National Diploma (HND) in Scotland and in England. In Scotland, the HNC is awarded after one (successful) year and the HND is awarded after two. Both can be studied full- or part-time. In contrast, in England, the HNC is essentially the part-time, work-based equivalent of the full-time HND.

10.15 A number of organisations have proposed the development of a framework to provide clarity on levels of achievement and to show the progression pathways for students. The Royal Society, in its report ‘Higher Education Futures’, proposed a qualification structure based on a clear progression from ‘certificate of higher education’ through ‘diploma’ and ‘degree’ to enhanced and extended first degrees.2 In response to the need for clarity in the vast range of vocational qualifications, the National Council for Vocational Qualifications (NCVQ) has developed a five level framework which is being progressively introduced in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Dearing report on qualifications for 16 to 19 year olds proposed a national framework covering awards and pathways to achievement up to level 3, which covers both academic and vocational awards in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.3 The Scottish Qualifications Authority is taking similar steps in Scotland through the implementation of Higher Still.

10.16 The Higher Education Quality Council (HEQC), as part of its work on the standards of degrees, recommended the development of a consistent awards framework, possibly linked to credits and levels, that would provide a rationale for different types of award and clarify the relationship between awards at different levels. In its evidence to us, Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Pricipals (CVCP) called for:

‘The long-term goal for the UK must be a new education and training framework encompassing all post-16 further and higher level training and qualifications. Such a framework would offer clear pathways for students, encourage progression, and contribute to wider international recognition of qualifications.’4

10.17 We agree with those who have represented the need for a framework of qualifications providing greater clarity to the meaning of awards at the higher levels, and we have addressed the nature of a national framework. In so doing, we have considered:

  • the extent to which the framework should be national, encompassing the different qualifications of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland;
  • the relationship of vocational and academic qualifications within such a framework;
  • the types of qualifications that it should contain, and whether there is a case for additional ‘stopping-off’ points below first degree;
  • whether the framework should be based on credit points;
  • the European implications of such a framework.

Should there be a UK-wide framework?
10.18 We have considered the possibility of a framework which is truly national in nature. In the long term – say five to ten years – we think that it may be possible and advantageous for there to be a UK framework of qualifications, encompassing England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. However, given the historic differences in educational traditions, it will be necessary, in the short term, to have separate frameworks for Scotland and for the rest of the UK. In the meantime, it may be practicable to map the Scottish arrangements on to those for the rest of the UK. Proceeding in this way makes it possible to recognise distinctive practice in Scotland, while enabling students to understand where they are within the structure and potential options open to them UK-wide. This approach would also allow institutions throughout the UK to develop a range of programmes to cater for different types of students – with, for example, the rest of the UK developing some programmes which are similar to those in Scotland, and vice versa. What happens in Scotland may depend ultimately on what is decided about school leaving qualifications and the extent to which the Advanced Highers are adopted.

10.19 We have, therefore, concluded that it would be in the long term interests of the UK to establish a national framework, but that sufficient and necessary conditions do not at present appertain.

Vocational and academic qualifications
10.20 The distinction between vocational and ‘academic’ work has never been clear cut. University education, in its origins, had an academic purpose in preparing young men for a religious vocation. Medicine has long been an esteemed element in higher education, and our consultation has confirmed that, particularly in view of the increased importance of the basic biomedical sciences and the increasing breadth of knowledge of the social sciences and ethical issues that will be required of the profession in the future, the training of doctors must remain firmly embedded in higher education institutions in a research environment. The training of nurses has been extensively incorporated into higher education in recent years. Dentistry, veterinary science and a range of paramedical qualifications are pursued through higher education. The training of teachers is a long-established element in higher education. The engineering and other professional bodies accredit university degree programmes. The HND and the HNC, as vocational qualifications, are also a well-established part of higher education.

10.21 Although there are distinct differences in the purpose of academic and vocational pathways, to regard them separately and in isolation is at variance with the facts. We see advantages in creating a framework which encompasses both pathways. In particular, we see the potential for National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) and their Scottish equivalents, Scottish Vocational Qualifications (SVQs) at levels 4 and 5 to integrate with provision in higher education.

10.22 Recent developments have acknowledged that the development and assessment of knowledge and understanding was under-emphasised in early work on S/NVQs. At the higher levels, there is a particular need to ensure the adequate specification and assessment of knowledge and understanding which, for practical reasons may need to be separately assessed from their application in the workplace. This reappraisal leads to the prospect of an enlarged role for colleges and universities in delivery and assessment of S/NVQ.

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