Teaching, quality and standards

Learning and teaching
4.63 Evidence provided to us during this review has shown the scale of change that has been under way within the higher and further education sectors in Scotland over the last ten years. The continuing success of Scottish higher education providers in responding to this change - by creating and delivering high quality and flexible programmes of study to meet the needs of an increasingly large and diverse student population - is demonstrated by the consistent competitiveness of our graduates both within the UK and beyond. This commitment to maintaining and assuring high quality is a reflection of a wider movement that is occurring in industry.

4.64 We believe that in order to continue to meet the challenges of the future, there will be an increasing need for Scottish higher education providers to develop new strategies to support the management of learning throughout life, particularly as we move towards a Learning Society. We therefore welcome the National Committee's call for the development of these strategies on a UK-wide basis.

4.65 Learning and teaching practices within and across Scottish higher education providers are diverse in both the type and nature of provision on offer. Students are undoubtedly enriched by this diversity in approach and would not wish to see this tapestry of provision curtailed unnecessarily. We do, however, believe that in order to continue to improve and enhance the academic experience, there is a need to clarify, strengthen and promote learning and teaching in its own right. We therefore support strongly the National Committee's approach to pedagogic issues, including recommendations to strengthen student guidance and support services. In particular, we believe that the quality of learning and teaching in higher education will be enhanced if all higher education providers:

  • give high priority to developing and implementing learning and teaching strategies which focus on the promotion of students' learning (Chapter 8, National Committee report);
  • ensure that achievement in the key skills - communication, numeracy, the use of information technology and learning to learn - become intended outcomes for all programmes of study and that in the long-term, these skills should become embedded in all programmes (Chapter 9, National Committee report);
  • develop student Progress Files based upon a common, UK-wide format, that provides a transcript that records student achievement and also enables students to monitor, build and reflect upon their personal achievement (Chapter 9, National Committee report);
  • develop programme specifications that identify potential stopping-off points within the qualifications framework and also gives the intended outcomes of programmes in terms of the knowledge and understanding that a student will be expected to have upon completion; key skills developed and used; cognitive skills to be attained and subject specific skills (Chapter 9, National Committee report);
  • follow a UK-wide code of practice to be developed by the Quality Assurance Agency (see below) related to student support and guidance services (Chapters 8 and 10, National Committee report);

Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education (the Institute)
We have noted elsewhere in this report that to ensure continuous innovation and improvements in learning and teaching practices, academics must be recognised and rewarded for their efforts. This can be achieved by raising the status of teaching by encouraging new approaches and providing greater opportunities to undertake research and scholarly activities to underpin teaching. However, in order to achieve wider recognition, we believe that the first step towards raising the status of teaching must be a more structured approach on the part of institutions to the initial training of lecturers and subsequent staff development.

4.67 In coming to this view we considered evidence submitted to us by the Educational Institute for Scotland that commented that 'there is still an urgent need for lecturers to be better trained in teaching approaches'.51 We also considered the views of the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTC) that suggested that 'registration' with the GTC might be an appropriate 'badge of professionalism' for teachers in higher education.52 Whilst we agree with these views in principle, we are of the view that the nature of teaching in higher education demands a UK-wide focus. We therefore endorse the National Committee's recommendation to establish the Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education.

4.68 The Institute, with three levels of membership that will recognise superior levels of teaching expertise, will perform three key functions in support of higher education teaching. These are:

  • the accreditation of teacher education programmes offered in institutions;
  • research and development into learning and teaching;
  • stimulation of innovation in learning and teaching particularly with regard to using C&IT to enhance it.

4.69 Drawing upon COSHEP's commitment to 'a new approach to staff training and enhancement' we would expect new teaching staff to achieve accredited status.53 To ensure this, we recommend that institutions view the accreditation of their teaching programmes as a priority and encourage all staff to participate.

4.70 Because a substantial proportion of higher education provision is provided in the further education sector in Scotland, we believe that those involved in teaching higher education programmes of study should also be encouraged to join the Institute.

We believe that accreditation will ensure that higher education teachers have attained a known high standard of teaching competence. It will also offer higher education teachers the opportunity to demonstrate their professionalism and standing in a way that is widely recognised across the UK. In this respect, we believe that accreditation will expand career opportunities for staff, including opportunities for promotion. We expect that higher education institutions will eventually seek to develop teacher accreditation as an important element of all good systems of staff development.

Recommendation 8
We recommend to higher education institutions that they should, on behalf of their staff, establish or seek access to programmes accredited by the proposed Institute for Learning and Teaching that support teaching excellence. Institutions should encourage new and existing staff, including higher education teachers in the further education sector, to join the Institute.

4.72 We also support the National Committee's recommendation that the Institute should promote and stimulate research and good practice in higher education learning and teaching. We note that this should include assisting the sector in making the best use of communications and information technology. We believe this role will become increasingly significant in future as we seek to establish a leading role in the development of innovative approaches to learning that build on technology.

4.73 It is, therefore, our view that the Institute, with professional membership and standing, will provide a number of valuable services to the higher education sector. It will also at the same time, confer status on those who seek and contribute to its membership.

Quality and standards
The assurance of academic quality in higher education institutions in Scotland under the auspices of the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council (SHEFC) is distinctive from that established elsewhere in the UK. There is much to commend the SHEFC Teaching Quality Assessment (TQA) process and we believe on balance that the Scottish approach has been beneficial to higher education in Scotland. However, we also believe that there is a need to strengthen mechanisms to ensure that our academic standards are consistent across the UK and comparable with the best available anywhere in the world especially in the light of the overseas market. We therefore support the recommendations of the National Committee that call for:

  • a broadening of the role the new UK-wide Quality Assurance Agency to include specific responsibilities for monitoring academic standards in the medium term through the implementation of small expert subject teams to provide benchmark information on threshold and upper aspirational standards of achievement. We believe that it would be useful to have international representation and benchmarks to assist these teams (Chapter 10, National Committee report);
  • a reinvestment in a strengthened external examiner system based upon well-defined roles supported by training and incentives to encourage senior staff to participate in the system. We believe that this system must operate on a UK-wide basis in order to assist institutions and departments in verifying academic standards (Chapter 10, National Committee report);
  • the establishment of a new Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education to assist in the development of continuous innovation and improvement in teaching and learning practices (Chapter 8, National Committee report);
  • the establishment of a national system of professional accreditation for programmes for higher education teacher training (Chapters 8 and 14, National Committee report).

Teaching quality assessment
The Scottish Teaching Quality Assessment (TQA) process offers higher education institutions and departments a unique opportunity to assess their own performance against their own individual missions. External scrutiny and a publicly available report on the outcomes of the TQA are regular features of this process. Another feature noted earlier is that since 1996, institutions receiving an excellent rating from the TQA are rewarded with an additional five per cent more student funded places by SHEFC. We have been reassured to note that in the period 1993-96, more than 99 per cent of Scottish departments undergoing TQA were graded satisfactory or above. Similarly, we are pleased to note that 57 per cent of departments assessed were graded highly satisfactory more than whilst 19 per cent were rated excellent.

4.76 We are aware that the Scottish TQA process has recently been reviewed and that recommended changes in the operation of the system will be made that will bring the Scottish TQA in closer alignment with the present English model.54 While we support this change in process for the reasons set out in the jointly-sponsored SHEFC and COSHEP Miller Report, we expect the process to remain robust. We are, therefore, concerned about recommendations set out in the final report of the Joint Planning Group for Quality Assurance in Higher Education55 that, if adopted, would extend the current assessment cycle from six years to eight years. We believe that eight years is too long either to assist institutions in a formative manner or to inform adequately the market. We believe that to be fully effective, TQA requires a review cycle of not more than six years.

Recommendation 9
We recommend to the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council that, for as long as Teaching Quality Assessment remains the main quality assessment mechanism in operation in Scotland, a review cycle of not more than six years should be in place.

We believe that robust external accountability measures should continue in the medium term. However, we share the view of the National Committee that, in the longer term, if the range of recommendations drafted to secure and maintain academic standards is adopted on a UK-wide basis, the need for the TQA and other forms of external scrutiny of higher education quality in their present forms will become unnecessary as institutions become better attuned to fulfilling these tasks themselves, both individually and collectively.

Quality Assurance Agency
In its final report, the Joint Planning Group for Quality Assurance in Higher Education called for 'the establishment of a single agency with a UK-wide remit as soon as possible, and the creation of an integrated process of quality assurance'.56 The intended aims of this new agency would be:

  • to help institutions improve the quality and standards of their educational provision;
  • to provide public information on the quality and standards of that provision;
  • to satisfy the responsibilities of the funding councils to account for the public money invested in higher education.

4.79 As autonomous bodies, we believe that higher education institutions are ultimately responsible for the quality and standards of their academic provision and awards. The academic teaching community is the prime source of knowledge and judgement in the design and delivery of academic programmes and ownership and responsibility should continue to rest with them. However, we also believe that the maintenance and assurance of high quality provision is a matter of continuing national interest and concern. We, therefore, support the National Committee's call for strengthening and expanding the role of the new Quality Assurance Agency to include three main functional areas: quality assurance and public information; standards verification; and the maintenance of the proposed qualification framework. We further support the National Committee's recommendation that higher education institutions should be required formally to adopt a code of practice which embodies these arrangements as a condition of public funding.

4.80 In order to meet these aims, we recognise that the Quality Assurance Agency will need to undertake a broad range of activities - we have already noted our support for the establishment of expert subject teams and strengthening the external examiner system in order to assist in the articulation and verification of academic standards. We also believe that the new agency should, in consultation with the sector, have an active role in establishing codes of practice and that compliance with these codes should become a regular part of quality assurance procedures in the future.

4.81 In establishing our support for the new Quality Assurance Agency, we are aware of the debate about whether, and when SHEFC, should join the new Agency. We have given this matter careful consideration, taking into account the views and evidence submitted to the Inquiry by the key parties to this debate.

4.82 We are aware that the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principles (COSHEP) is in favour of a single, UK-wide system of quality assurance for higher education. We have also considered concerns expressed by the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council (SHEFC) about whether it could meet its statutory responsibilities through the new agency as uncertainties about the cost, governance and quality assurance processes to be adopted by the new agency have not yet been resolved. Having considered the evidence, we believe that Scotland would be best served by Scottish higher education institutions joining and the funding council contracting with the new Quality Assurance Agency at an early date.

4.83 Our support is based upon the proviso that the new UK-wide arrangements will be able to demonstrate sensitivity to the distinctive aspects of Scottish higher education. We believe that this can best be achieved by establishing a Scottish branch to oversee directly the Scottish qualifications framework and to liaise with Scottish institutions. We also believe that arrangements for joining the new agency should:

  • embody a recognised Scottish dimension;
  • maintain the quality of higher education provision and continue to support the quality improvement process;
  • ensure that arrangements for the governance of the system are appropriate;
  • be no more expensive than current Scottish arrangements in the long term.

4.84 We believe that Scottish higher education institutions, individually and collectively, would benefit from being able to have early opportunities to provide assistance in the formulation, piloting and implementation of future UK-wide arrangements for defining standards and assessing quality assurance procedures. We also believe it likely that this influence at an early stage could lead to cost efficiencies as quality processes could be streamlined, for example by working with professional and accrediting bodies, without negatively infringing on the quality process itself. Equally important, we believe that Scottish higher education institutions would be severely disadvantaged compared to other higher education institutions elsewhere in the UK were they excluded from making formal contributions to any new arrangements to be taken forward by the Quality Assurance Agency that might, at a future date, have an impact on operations or provision.

Recommendation 10
We recommend to the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council and the Quality Assurance Agency that they should meet, as soon as practical, to begin negotiations that will ensure that the criteria to support Scotland's inclusion in the Agency are met at an early date.

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