Universities and constitutional change in the uk: the impact of devolution on the higher education sector Tony Bruce Introduction


Degree-awarding powers and quality assurance



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Degree-awarding powers and quality assurance

  1. The award of university title and degree-awarding powers remains a non-devolved matter and the arguments for maintaining the status quo have prevailed so far, although this is now under review in Scotland. The Privy Council is empowered to grant institutions the powers to award their own degrees and in considering applications for such powers, it has sought advice from the appropriate territorial higher education Minister.

  2. In England and Wales applications for university title are considered under criteria approved in 2004. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, they are considered under criteria approved in 1999 (which, before 2004, were applicable to all parts of the United Kingdom). In 2004 it was decided in England and Wales to change the criteria for the award of university title so that it was no longer necessary for an institution first to have secured research degree-awarding powers.

  3. These changes were the first indication that the UK government was to take a more radical approach to degree-awarding powers and university title than has been evident in the other UK countries. They led to the creation of a group of new universities from former colleges of HE that had been awarding other universities’ research degrees. As a result of the new criteria four private providers in England have also been awarded degree awarding powers. Further changes have been proposed in England in the 2011 White Paper but seem unlikely to be matched elsewhere in the UK

  4. All four countries subscribe to the principle that universities have the main responsibility for ensuring that quality and standards are maintained and that they should be independently overseen by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) which has a UK-wide remit. All universities use a common set of tools to underpin their work in maintaining quality and standards.

  5. The legislation creating the funding councils in 1992 included a specific obligation to ensure that provision is made by each council for assessing the quality of the provision it funds. In 1997 the QAA was created as a UK-wide independent body funded by universities and funding council contracts, which require it to devise and apply quality assurance methods. The devolved countries continue to support the need for comparable UK standards based on institutional review and have endorsed the view that QA at subject level should be the responsibility of the universities.

  6. Clear differences of approach have developed between the four countries and their contracts with the QAA require it to adopt different approaches. After 2001, quality assurance in Scotland began to move in the direction of quality enhancement and enhancement-led institutional review was promulgated in 2003. Wales has also moved in the same direction. The approach it adopted from 2003 was similar to that in England but there were no discipline-based audit trails or publication of summaries of external examiners’ reports. In 2009 an increased emphasis on enhancement and a greater focus on the learner experience were adopted. Further changes have been made which brought the review method closer to that adopted for England and Northern Ireland.




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