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Nichola Kett, Head of Quality Assurance and Enhancement at Edinburgh University, reflects on her SFC secondment as we progress with the development of a common approach to quality in the tertiary sector.

Quality assurance and enhancement is a serious matter for colleges and universities. There are extensive and well-established arrangements in both sectors [colleges and universities] to assure the quality of provision and enhance the student learning experience. I joined SFC in October 2021 on a secondment to support the recommendation from the Review of Coherent Provision and Sustainability. I arrived knowing university quality arrangements like the back of my hand but had no knowledge of how this works in colleges. Thanks to the time and patience of colleagues in the college sector, I left with a much better understanding and a reassuring realisation that we are not that different.

What did I find out?

For all intents and purposes, both colleges and universities: undergo external periodic review; undertake regular and periodic internal review of academic provision and support services; make use of external experts; engage with professional, statutory and regulatory bodies; have defined processes for approval of academic provision; and provide a variety of public information. They both also: have approaches that are underpinned by student engagement; follow the Student Engagement Framework for Scotland; and work collaboratively on sector-level enhancement activity. Those involved in last year’s project exploring self-evaluation practice will know both sectors also use institution-led self-evaluation supported by data and evidence as part of quality processes. Finally, the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework is a common reference point used across both sectors.

The main differences I found are:

  • Colleges are approved to deliver qualifications with around 100 awarding bodies, such as the Scottish Qualifications Authority. However, the quality assurance processes required by awarding bodies fit within the arrangements outlined above.
  • Universities have external sector reference points and requirements such as the UK Quality Code for Higher Education  and the European Standards and Guidelines.

There are also differences around other external review activity, public information, and the links between quality arrangements and the outcome agreement process. In these differences, there are strengths within each sector’s arrangements to explore in the context of a common approach.

For anyone interested in seeing more detail on the mapping outcomes, these are shared on the project web pages.

What does this mean for the project?

During my secondment, I had the pleasure of engaging with quality managers from colleges and was reassured how easily I recognised familiar processes. The sectors have also started to come together organically in various ways and there is a willingness to share and learn from one another.

As part of the project, I was involved in a whirlwind of meetings, networks, presentations, and deep dives into quality processes with many colleagues from colleges, universities, quality agencies and other external bodies. Through these, colleagues shared what is valued and what could be improved. This has been invaluable in shaping the next phase of the project and sets up a strong foundation from which to co-create the new approach.

The mapping exercise has shown many common areas and much of value for us to build on. Many quality processes in colleges and universities are similar but are simply called different things. I feel it’s important to share the mapping outcomes and illustrative examples to help develop understanding of this across the sectors.

My reflections

For me now, moving towards a common approach does not seem as daunting as it once was. Change is always challenging, but I have heard excitement and enthusiasm from colleagues across the sectors about the next phase of the project. I have also recently been reflecting on the current quality arrangements and am heartened that the common approach across tertiary can accommodate a wide variety of institutions and provision. The new SFC and sector Tertiary Quality Steering Group will build on our shared experience and commitment to guide the project through. I look forward to continuing involvement with this significant and exciting project and contributing to the co-creation of the common approach, albeit from the other side!