Doing It Right When Nobody Is Looking

07 November 2018      Martin Higgs, Communications Officer


Why does HR have a leading role in embedding a culture of quality within universities and colleges? asks Leanne Ennis of the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education

Quality means doing it right when nobody is looking. So says the quotation attributed to automobile pioneer Henry Ford. A line so often repeated that it's become a cliché.

But then again, it's true. And higher education is no exception to this statement. Even at a time where it might feel like everyone is looking – external examiners, regulators and the media - the best way for universities and colleges to deliver an excellent experience for each and every student is to embed a culture of quality. That way, quality becomes second nature, whether the spotlight is on you or not.

So how can HR support this? What really is quality assurance of higher education? And how does it affect your role in HR?

What is quality assurance in higher education?

Quality assurance plays a major role in the operation and success of every higher education institution. It is the systematic monitoring and evaluation of learning and teaching, and the review of the processes that protect standards and influence student experiences. Or, in simple terms (which I much prefer!): making sure your university or college is doing the right things, the right way, in order to get the right outcomes. As well as internal quality assurance, there are external checks by organisations like the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA), to make sure our universities and colleges are doing what's expected of them.

Although quality assurance is not always at the forefront, it is the vital tool used behind the scenes to ensure higher education institutions meet the high standards expected of them. While it's fairly common for established universities and colleges to have at least one person responsible for quality assuring programmes, we are seeing a shift as quality encompasses more and more parts of a university's operation, and all stages of the student lifecycle. Today, everyone should feel enabled to take a personal responsibility for quality in their daily working.

The sector has changed considerably over the past few years in terms of quality assurance, and so have the challenges. For example, we're seeing a greater emphasis on the way in which data can be used by quality teams to identify where to focus their attention at work, and so data capabilities will be important for your workforce. There are threats to academic standards as unscrupulous companies tempt students with sophisticated ways of cheating using new technologies – often requiring an equally sophisticated response to identify and address them. We've seen the introduction of the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework, or TEF, which gives universities and colleges a bronze, silver or gold rating. If the ads on buses and train stations I see emblazoned with TEF ratings are anything to go by, it's perhaps the most high-profile part of our quality system at the moment.

With so much change, even career quality professionals may be finding themselves unsure about the latest developments. Therefore, to ensure quality and standards are maintained and improved, more staff will need to become familiar with how higher education is quality assured and be responsive to a fast-changing policy area. HR professionals will find themselves supporting an institution-wide culture where quality assurance is embedded in to everyday practices to meet the needs of all staff.

How does quality assurance contribute to you achieving your strategic aims?

Most universities and colleges have providing the best possible student experience as one of their strategic aims. It's core to everything you do. To deliver this, there are a whole host of structures and processes that contribute to creating a successful institution, all of which need to be quality assured:

•           Internal systems
•           Data collection and analysis
•           Curriculum design and development
•           Student recruitment, admissions and retention
•           Student feedback
•           Public information
•           Organisational structures
•           Partner collaborations
•           National and international reputation

Continuous development and improvement of the processes and practices used in these elements contributes to the delivery of a first-class higher education service, and embedding a culture of quality is key to achieving this outcome.

What role do HR departments have in ensuring quality assurance is embedded institution-wide?

HR departments have an important role in integrating quality assurance knowhow throughout university and college workforces, by supporting development, implementation and future planning. HR professionals can be the champions for promoting a “quality-first” mindset and helping to achieve buy-in from all levels of staff. When speaking to staff, I have found they are often unaware of how many projects they are involved in which have a direct influence on key strategic aims, but also need to be quality assured in the process. In my experience, even a short introduction to the fundamentals of quality assurance in higher education can transform how they approach their roles. Why don’t you take on the quality mantle, and highlight to your staff how quality assurance impacts upon the aims and values of your university or college?

QAA works with HR departments in universities and colleges to deliver excellent student experiences

Leanne Ennis is Innovation and Enterprise Coordinator at the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, the UK's independent quality body for higher education. QAA offers an online development programme, Concepts of Quality, which is aimed at early career HE quality professionals. They can also work with you to deliver bespoke training and services that will really add value to your institution. Contact Leanne for a conversation about how QAA can help you to make a difference.

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