A new vision for validation in the HE sector

Blog published on 8 September 2016 by Alexander Proudfoot, Chief Executive of Independent Higher Education. Our pilot project with the OU and QAA has been announced today and the press release is available here.

For most people the word validation means to be praised, to receive a good result and to be recognised for something you have excelled at. But for too many independent higher education providers, validation has instead come to mean confusion, frustration and delay.

The ‘validation’ of degree courses by a partner university has been a fact of life for providers without their own awarding powers since the closure of the Council for National Academic Awards in 1992. For some this has been a very positive experience, allowing them to develop their provision in close cooperation with an experienced institution whose staff act as a source of invaluable advice and support. For others, the experience has not been so positive. In the last five years in particular it has become increasingly difficult for colleges to secure a lasting agreement which meets the needs of their students, while weaknesses in the approach of some universities have been laid starkly bare by a number of high-profile failures.

Conscious of these difficulties, Independent HE has been working over the past year to identify the key issues with how the current validation system operates: from the challenges faced by new providers in finding a suitable validating partner to begin with, to the frustrations of long-established independent HEIs who do not receive the service they expect and who feel their students are being let down in the process.

While the Government’s reforms and the HE Bill currently before Parliament will provide a faster route for independent providers who are ready to award their own degrees, most will continue to see validation as a necessary step along the path of development, and for many smaller colleges it will remain the best long-term option for their staff and students. We felt it was incumbent on us, therefore, to try to fix the problems with validation for the benefit of our members and for the sector as a whole.

The first challenge for new providers is in gaining access to information, advice and assistance. As validation can look very different from university to university, and it is rarely publicised to any great extent, new providers can struggle even to find out that validation is an option available to them and what the process might actually entail. This information can be difficult to obtain unless you know where to look.

A greater challenge still is to identify a validating partner which will be a good fit for your institution and which is qualified to assess and support the particular courses you wish to deliver. As there is no centralised source of information on which institutions have experience of validation and indeed are open to validating new provision, this can be a lengthy and frustrating process which small providers with limited resources can struggle with.

At the public bill committee hearings this week for the Higher Education and Research Bill, the Academic Director of our member institution Condé Nast College of Fashion and Design reflected on this very point, saying that “finding a validating partner for degrees is really difficult; there’s no central body to help us through that process” and concluding that for this reason the idea of the Office for Students as a single regulator and potential source of guidance in this area is very appealing.

Challenges with the current system do not end after a provider has found a suitable and willing partner. With a proliferation of increasingly divergent arrangements in the sector, there are many inconsistencies in the approach that different universities take to validation, generating concerns around efficiency, quality and performance. These inconsitencies make life particularly difficult for colleges who (for a variety of reasons) are forced to work with more than one validating partner, adding significant overhead with no benefit to students.

Many of the providers we speak to complain that their university partners do not deal with requests for launching a new course, making changes to existing provision or managing student transfers in a timely manner, leaving both providers and their students frustrated and blocked from making progress. Communication and trust are key to any relationship, but any breakdown in the validation relationship can undermine the efficiency and innovation of the higher education sector as a whole.

Even with an initially successful partnership, colleges can discover a few years down the line that their validating university becomes a barrier to progress by not allowing them to innovate in ways they would like to, for example through the introduction of accelerated courses or blended learning models. And in the worst – but sadly not at all infrequent – cases, validating universities will veto the launch of new courses by their partner college if they consider them to be in competition with their own.

But the greatest failing of the current system can be seen in the ending of relationships, and how little protection is given in many agreements to the validated provider and their students. The truth of this is borne out in the experience of further education colleges as much as for independent providers. In a recent case Teesside University abruptly announced, soon after the appointment of their new Vice-Chancellor, that it was severing its ties with all ten of the further education providers it validated, leaving the colleges to scramble for alternative arrangements in order to protect and reassure their students.

This example and many others reveal to what extent colleges are ‘at the mercy’ of their validating universities – and indeed of particular individuals, because it is still very common for validation arrangements to be considered the personal project of key staff, rather than a long-term, institution-wide commitment which should outlast the immediate attention of whoever manages the relationship. Sadly, this kind of volatility is only likely to increase now that student places are uncapped and universities look to expand their reach and market share through internal expansion instead of external partnerships.

There are, however, great examples of validation in the UK, and the Open University is one of the best, demonstrating a professional, even-handed approach and a commitment to transparency in both process and costs. This reflects the university’s clear belief in validation as a core part of its long-term mission to widen participation in HE to new students and new provision. So we are delighted to be working with them on our pilot project announced today to develop a more efficient, streamlined validation process, as well as establish a benchmark for excellence in this area which can be used to spread best practice across the sector.

The involvement of QAA in this project is also essential, as it should enable us ultimately to devise a single, streamlined process which provides both institutional and programme-level assurances that appropriate academic standards and quality will be maintained. We hope that the results of the pilot will also produce some clear recommendations to the Department for Education to help inform their development of the gateway quality checks within the new ‘single route’ registration system.

Independent providers have a huge amount to offer the higher education sector with their energy, enthusiasm and drive to innovate. An efficient validation system which serves to encourage and not block this innovation can provide the secure and supportive environment for experimenting with new approaches while giving students the guarantees they need in terms of quality, stability and a recognised award at the end of their course. We are determined to see just such a system take hold, and will work closely with our project partners and with the Government in seeking to realise our vision.

  • On 8th September 2016
Tags: HE Bill, HE reform, Quality