A watchful eye on quality becomes more important as FE colleges increasingly deliver higher education, says Dr Stephen Jackson

The tectonic plates of UK higher education are shifting with students basing their study choices on changing criteria.

Providers newer to the game have been eager to compete with the university sector by offering significant benefits in terms of cost, location and flexibility. Privately-funded providers are competing fiercely to recruit students on to the specialist programmes that they can deliver at a lower cost than the traditional sector.

Meanwhile, FE colleges can provide higher education programmes that meet local demands, are competitively priced and available ‘at the end of the street’.

It is increasingly clear that one size does not fit all in this new world of student choice and provider offers.

However, we believe there should be one measure of quality assurance so that HE students, wherever and whatever they study, can be guaranteed nationally agreed academic standards and quality.

Around 12 per cent of UK higher education is delivered in FE colleges – although that percentage is expected to increase.

For more than a decade, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA)  has monitored the standards and quality of college higher education — first via subject and academic reviews, then through our Integrated Quality and Enhancement Reviews (IQER). These were the first bespoke review methods for higher education delivered in FE colleges.

Around 12 per cent of UK higher education is delivered in FE colleges”

IQER taught us that colleges do a good job in delivering higher education; that what they do is broadly compatible with what universities do, although in a different way and sometimes for different reasons. And IQER has led to a maturing in the sector, a reduction in the paternalistic relationships between awarding bodies and their colleges, and an increase in a sense of parity and self-confidence.

But we have now introduced  the Review of College Higher Education (RCHE). Why? It goes back to what I said earlier about having one measure of quality assurance — a single framework — for all UK higher education.

RCHE brings us a step closer to this by applying the same criteria, expectations and judgments as our institutional reviews of universities.

We have worked with FE colleges to develop the new method and, so far, the response has been positive. It’s easy to understand why. It’s not an inspection, it uses peers to review and judge the colleges, and it can be a useful catalyst for change.

We want colleges to benefit from review by getting an external perspective on their higher education provision, the standards of the awards they offer, the quality of their learning opportunities, the quality of the information that they provide and the measures that they take to enhance what they do.

Colleges will be able to make direct comparisons between what they do and achieve, and what their colleagues in universities do and achieve.

They will work to the same guidance and the same set of expectations we provide to higher education institutions with the UK Quality Code for Higher Education. They will be able to use the action plan from the review as a planning tool.

As with IQER, we will publish the outcomes of every RCHE review, showcasing the good practice that our reviewers find in each college as well as the recommendations we ask them to action.

We are inviting FE colleges to join universities and other UK higher education institutions in subscribing to QAA, as a signal of the maturity and confidence of the college higher education part of the sector. Visit www.qaa.ac.uk/AboutUs/subscribing-institutions/Pages/Applying-to-QAA.aspx for details on how to sign-up.

Dr Stephen Jackson is  director of
reviews at the QAA