HEFCE Accountability Returns: Advice on Academic Assurances and Avoiding Burden

HEFCE’s ‘Revised operating model for quality assessment’ requires governing bodies to provide assurances on the quality of the student academic experience. In this blog post, Steve Denton, Chief Operating Officer and Registrar at Nottingham Trent University, considers the impact of this requirement on our institutions and their governing bodies.

I’ve been around in universities long enough to know that when a new external requirement or regulation is introduced, two things inevitably follow.

Firstly, there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth, with howls of derision about the burden of bureaucracy. Sometimes justified; sometimes not.

Secondly, we then proceed to design intricate and elaborate processes, often “gold plated”, to meet or more usually exceed said external requirement.

So, when HEFCE Circular letter 25/2016 arrived on 22 August 2016, wailing and gnashing of teeth ensued (including me). To remind you, the circular required governing bodies to give the following assurances as part of the December suite of Annual Accountability Returns.

The governing body has received and discussed a report and accompanying action plan relating to the continuous improvement of the student academic experience and student outcomes. This included evidence from the provider’s own periodic review processes, which fully involve students and include embedded external peer or professional review.”

The methodologies used as a basis to improve the student academic experience and student outcomes are, to the best of our knowledge, robust and appropriate.”

And, additionally, for providers with degree awarding powers:

“The standards of awards for which we are responsible have been appropriately set and maintained.”

At the time, many of the complaints focused (justifiably) on the short notice, although it had been trailed in HEFCE’s revised model for quality assurance earlier in the year. More substantive concerns were expressed about confusion of the role of the Academic Board/Senate and Governing Body/Council, and the potential additional bureaucratic burden.

LFHE has been commissioned by the UK-wide Standing Committee to provide guidance for governing bodies on this.

My advice – don’t wait for the guidance, and don’t design some new elaborate process. You don’t need to. This is what we do, and it’s what we do well and have been doing well for years.

All our institutions will have had in place for some time some form of annual reporting across a range of academic standards, quality and enhancement measures. For example, the outcomes of course approval and periodic review of courses, which involve external and student input, or from external examiners, whose feedback in my experience will be promptly considered and acted upon.

Similarly, all our institutions will have annual reporting on module or course feedback from students, and complaints and appeals, supplemented by NSS, PTES, OIA etc. As learning institutions, each of these reports will be accompanied by action plans, as we seek to act on the findings and feedback.

These will normally go through Senate/Academic Board and are normally at a high enough level of aggregation to be adapted for Council/Board purposes so they can make the assurances required. At NTU we are reviewing how we can ensure that these are scheduled so the Board can receive regular reports throughout the year, rather than a “big bang” approach In December. It also supplements the regular briefings on academic matters we have been making to our Board for some time.

The Annexe to the CUC’s illustrative practice note on Academic Governance is helpful in this regard, although my plea would be avoid creating something additional and bespoke for your governing body, and think carefully about how you weave into the normal annual rhythm of meetings.

It is right and proper that our Boards and Councils receive briefings and assurances on matters relating to quality, standards and the experiences of our students, with appropriate guidance from Senates and Academic Boards. It also shouldn’t be a significant additional burden unless we choose to make it so.

Image Credit: NTU Graduation by Nottingham Trent University on Flickr used under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0