Higher Education sector announces new initiatives to protect value of UK degrees

In May 2019, the sector-representative bodies for higher education in the UK published a Statement of Intent, reaffirming their commitment to protect the value of UK degrees and to transparent, consistent and fair academic standards.  

The UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment (UKSCQA) has agreed the need for further action to meet this challenge and today announces two new initiatives developed by the sector to follow up on that earlier undertaking:

  • degree outcomes statements, and
  • new degree classifications descriptions.

Degree outcomes statements

The Statement of Intent explained how providers in the different nations of the UK would take different approaches towards their common goal of protecting the value of degrees, reflecting their differing national quality assessment arrangements.  In Scotland, the Statement of Intent is secured by the Quality Enhancement Framework, and in Northern Ireland by its annual provider review process.

In England, sector-representative bodies agreed that providers should publish on their websites, in academic year 2019-20, an evaluative degree outcomes statement to provide clearer assurance to students, stakeholders and the wider public on how they ensure the value of the qualifications they award is protected.  Welsh institutions have collectively agreed to each publish a degree outcomes statement during academic year 2019-20 as well.

Guidance for providers on what to include in their degree outcomes statements is being published today on the websites of the UKSCQA and the QAA.  English providers should publish their statements on their websites in early 2020, respecting the formal approval processes needed and complying with CMA regulations.

Degree classification descriptions

The UKSCQA today publishes a set of common degree classification descriptions that set out the agreed general criteria that students across the UK should meet in order to achieve the different classes of qualification at bachelor’s honours degree level. These criteria will provide a vital tool for providers in ensuring the comparability and reliability of UK higher education qualifications.

The descriptions have been developed over an 18-month programme of work between the sector, Universities UKGuildHE, and the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), which was closely overseen by the UKSCQA. They were subject to consultation in November 2018 and, following minor subsequent amendments, are now being published to inform providers.

At its June 2019 meeting, the UKSCQA confirmed that these descriptions are an appropriate and important UK-wide reference point and should be appended to the national quality frameworks:  the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications of degree-awarding bodies in England, Wales & Northern Ireland (FHEQ), and the Framework for Qualifications of Higher Education Institutions in Scotland (FQHEIS). Accordingly, the descriptions appear today within a new annex to those Frameworks documents.

It is important that providers understand how these criteria should be applied within their national contexts, and this annex outlines their differing use in the four nations of the UK. They will be subject to periodic review by the UKSCQA to ensure their continued appropriateness and which will also consider their possible extension to other qualifications levels.

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Welcoming these initiatives, Professor Andrew Wathey CBE, Vice-Chancellor of Northumbria University and Chair of the UKSCQA, said:

“The UK delivers world-class education to students from all nations. It is therefore right that the sector commits to ensuring that the value of these world-class qualifications is maintained over time in line with the expectations of the UK Quality Code for Higher Education. Degree outcomes statements will be used by participating providers to demonstrate transparently the rigour and robustness of their internal assurance mechanisms, to give students, other stakeholders and the public confidence in the quality of HE qualifications.”

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said:

“It’s crucial that students, graduates and employers can trust the value of a university degree and the achievements of students who put in the hard work aren’t undermined.

“When I was at university, you could count the number of students on my course who got firsts on one hand, but now grade inflation has become entrenched in higher education.

“I am clear that universities must end grade inflation and I will be watching closely to see if these initiatives do help to tackle the issue. I expect the Office for Students to challenge institutions which continue to record unexplained rises in top degrees awarded.”

Professor Julia Buckingham CBE, President of Universities UK and Vice-Chancellor of Brunel University London, said:

“Universities are listening to concerns about grade inflation and these initiatives show our determination to ensuring transparency and consistency in the way degrees are awarded. Statements detailing degree results and agreed criteria for achieving different grades will support universities as they examine their practices, and protect the value of qualifications in the context of improvements in teaching and students’ performances. UUK will be calling on its members [in England] to publish degree outcomes statements on their websites.”

Dr David Llewellyn, Vice-Chancellor of Harper Adams University and Chair, GuildHE, said:

“The UK higher education sector is committed to delivering high quality education. The new degree outcomes statements will outline each institution’s degree classification profile over time and describe what has happened, what has changed and why it has changed. These statements, alongside the new grade classification descriptors, will further support academic governance within institutions and provide assurance that standards within UK higher education are being maintained and protected.”

The UKSCQA will review the effectiveness of both these initiatives in mid-2020 as part of its commitment to a wider review of the Statement of Intent after one year.  It is expected the impact of these statements would be substantially apparent following the 2020 examination round.

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