Changes to the UK National code – fixing what’s not broken?

I have always held out Chapter B5 of the UK National Quality Code as something to which we should aspire – in terms of a philosophy and an expectation of institutions working together with their students – rather than as a compliance tool. I wholeheartedly agree with the words of Tom Boland, Chief Executive Officer of the HEA, who said in launching the Irish National Student Engagement Pilot Programme: “Achieving successful student engagement is not about enforcement and compliance; it’s about building up a meaningful culture and two-way communications.” To place student partnership beside regulation would in mind view further encourage box-ticking and tokenism rather than genuinely embracing student voice as key to enhancement and quality and integral part of the way things are done in the sector.
Wording is important. It was a feature of Chapter B5 that it was phrased in terms of expectations and indicators which clearly indicated its spirit. For example, Indicator 1: ‘Higher education providers, in partnership with their student body, define and promote that range of opportunities for any student to engage in educational enhancement and quality assurance’; and Indicator 3: ‘ Arrangements exist for the effective representation of the collective student voice at all organizational level, and these arrangement provide opportunities for all students to be heard.’
The spirit of a community working together was clear from the setting up shortly afterwards in the UK of The Student Engagement Partnership between sector agencies and the National Union of Students. Together with Chapter B5 this inspired my project which was to develop a view of how in Australia we could take a lead from abroad and work together as a sector. How we could develop the means of embracing student voice authentically and effectively in decision-making at all levels of an institution’s operations. I found the research of Gwen van der Velden and others at the University of Bath hugely valuable (G M Van der Velden & ors (2013) “Student Engagement in Learning and Teaching Quality Management’) . This research was undertaken in conjunction with the UK QAA and was underpinned by Chapter B5. I began to look at how we could do student engagement better by talking with Gwen and student leaders in the UK. This, together with my discovery of the great trailblazing work undertaken by Eve Lewis and student partnerships in quality Scotland (sparqs), made me even more convinced that this was the path we needed to take in Australia. Even more affirming was the replacement of the Higher Education Funding Council by a body known as the Office for Students (OfS) which seemed to convey the message of putting students in their right place – at the centre of higher education.

So why the changes? I was puzzled and more than a little alarmed to hear of the intention to remove Chapter B5 in the replacement UK-wide Quality Code. The draft document, circulated for consultation, significantly downgraded the place of student voice in quality assurance and enhancement in the sector to be implied within the term ‘supplementary practices’. To quote from the Wonkhe comment of 27th March by Catherine Boyd this was despite the fact that: ‘… the development of student engagement in the UK has been internationally renowned and hard fought.’ She says: ‘ For many, this was too much of a demotion’. The sector’s response was strongly against the proposals. The opposition was not only to the proposed new Code but also to the lack of student engagement in the new OfS. As Catharine continues: “Furthermore, the strong reaction from the sector to the limited function of students in the Office for Students seemed to send a clear message that students remained at the heart of the system” (https://wonkhe.com/blogs,uk-quality-code-2-0).
A strong pushback was to be expected from the sector bodies – sparqs and TSEP- which have worked long and hard and with huge success to embed student partnership across the system. Most heartening however was concern at the removal from of the expectation of student engagement from the new Code expressed by the peak university bodies comprising senior management in Scotland and England.
So much so in fact that student engagement has re-entered the new iteration of the Code published recently by the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment (UKSCQA). This is out now for consultation. It is in much lesser form however.
The new Code aims for succinctness and brevity and the proposed student engagement provisions are definitely brief. While it is clearly a huge step forward from the previously drafted version, it is arguably still a major step back from the original philosophy and intent behind the wording of Chapter B5. The proposal now is for the expectation of student engagement to be found in the new idea of Core practice (for all UK institutions): ’The provider actively engages students, individually and collectively, in the quality of their educational experience’; and Common practice (for all institutions with enhancement led approaches or combination approaches) ‘The provider engages students individually and collectively in the development, assurance and enhancement of the quality of their educational experience’.
For the UK, time will tell as the consultation process proceeds. Importantly, the sector’s strong reaction to the removal of the clear expectations in Chapter B5 shows the weight which it places on student engagement as a way of doing things – from learning and teaching to university governance. Hopefully this ethos is there to stay despite what could eventuate as a lack of reinforcement in the national code.

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