The origins, operation and impacts of quality assurance in UK higher education, 1985-2004

Kuenssberg, Sally (2015) The origins, operation and impacts of quality assurance in UK higher education, 1985-2004. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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The thesis explores the origins of government concerns about the quality of UK higher
education during the 1980s and traces legislative processes leading to the reform acts of
1988 and 1992. It demonstrates close links between higher education reforms and
Conservative policies in the rest of the public sector and shows how quality assurance was
used as an instrument of regulation to increase government control over the universities
during the next decade. These developments coincided with the rise of a higher education
‘market’ in which quality assessment scores were translated into league tables to attract
students as ‘customers’. The narrative then shows how the issue of student fees
increasingly came to dominate the Labour government’s thinking from 1997 onwards and
became a major theme in debates leading to the higher education act of 2004.
The chronological narrative based on historical accounts and contemporary documents
identifies four successive phases of quality assurance between 1992 and 2004. This is
combined with a qualitative study which uses a constructivist approach to build up a
picture of the unsettled period that followed the introduction of quality assurance systems
into universities. A wide range of views from contemporary literature were supplemented
by a series of ten semi-structured interviews with individuals who played significant roles
in these events and reported their experiences in their own words.
The narrative traces the growth of a quality ‘industry’ in higher education and a longrunning
‘quality debate’ among those affected by its impacts. Difficulties of defining
‘quality’ and the political desire for quantitative measurement led to the adoption of
unsuitable methodology, emphasising accountability at the expense of improvement. This
turbulent period was characterised by a recurring pattern of rising protests from academics
which culminated in political intervention and subsequently further change. The thesis
analyses the effects of quality assurance on university staff and students and on the
developing discourse between higher education and the state. Summarising its impacts in a
balance sheet of pros and cons leads to the conclusion that though concerns about quality
were justified and some form of regulation was necessary in the expanded and diverse
sector, the results of audit and assessment revealed little cause for concern about the
quality of UK higher education. Furthermore, though quality assurance produced some
benefits in the organisation of courses, staff development and information for prospective
students, there was little evidence of benefits to teaching itself. Thus, quality assurance
failed to deliver the government’s own aim of value for money, and the effort and time
required by the universities could have been put to better use; less insistence on regulation
could have given academics more freedom to pursue improvements in teaching. A brief
epilogue reflects on the status of quality assurance in 2015 and warns that separate plans
for reform announced by HEFCE and the current government risk repeating old mistakes.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: higher education, quality assurance, policy analysis.
Subjects: L Education > LB Theory and practice of education > LB2300 Higher Education
Colleges/Schools: College of Social Sciences > School of Education
Supervisor's Name: MacKenzie, Dr. Jane
Date of Award: 2015
Depositing User: Mrs Sally Kuenssberg
Unique ID: glathesis:2015-7155
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 18 Mar 2016 08:32
Last Modified: 11 Apr 2016 08:14

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