Response of The Biochemical Society to the draft final report of the Joint Planning Group for Quality Assurance in Higher Education

Since 1992 the Higher Education Funding Councils and the Higher Education Quality Council have shared responsibility for aspects of quality assurance, leading to some unnecessary overlap and duplication. In 1995 Ministers established a Joint Planning Group to make recommendations on a single quality assurance agency. After extensive consultation the Planning Group published its draft final report in September 1996. The Biochemical Society submitted the comments below on the report to HEFCE and the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals.

The Biochemical Society, with some 9500 members in academia, publicly funded bodies and industry, is a Learned Society that promotes the advancement of the science of Biochemistry, in active collaboration with other societies representing cellular and molecular life sciences. The Society concerns itself with all aspects of education and training of cellular and molecular life scientists, including curriculum development and teaching technology. The Society is particularly concerned that UK qualifications in the molecular life sciences should retain their international reputation. The way that higher education has been allowed to expand, inadequately checked and essentially under-funded, could threaten this international standing. The Society is therefore pleased to respond to the final report of the Joint Planning Group.

The purposes of quality assurance
The Society supports the JPG's definition of these purposes (paragraph 6) and particularly welcomes the stress on the sharing of good practice and innovation as a mechanism for facilitating continuous quality improvement. The Society emphasises the necessity of addressing both 'fitness of purpose' and 'fitness for purpose' issues in subject/programme area reviews.

The quality assurance process: burden on institutions
The need for the new quality assurance process to reduce the administrative burden on institutions has been stressed in consultations, and much has been made of the possibility of joint reviews with professional and statutory bodies (PSBs) being one way of achieving this. Despite the increased flexibility given to institutions in the proposals to influence the timing of assessment, the fundamental difference between the eight-year cycle of reviews (paragraph 24) and the preferred five-year cycle of PSBs would appear to limit this possibility. The Society is disappointed that the agency is only expected to give 'strong encouragement' to collaborations with PSBs (paragraph 29) and looks to further examination of the advantages to institutions of such arrangements.

The Society welcomes the proposal to extend TQA to research degrees (paragraph 13). A national system for the quality assurance of research degrees is much to be preferred to the fragmented and diverse system currently in existence, which is only monitored externally for Research Council funded students. However, it is important that any extension of the system imposes the least possible extra burden on institutions.

Institutional self-evaluation
The Society considers that the maturity and effectiveness of internal quality assurance procedures varies across the sector in spite of the fact that the monitoring processes of most institutions include an element of external review. The Society recommends that, in the discussions proposed in paragraphs 8 and 16, the agency should take into account the maturity of a particular institution's internal quality assurance procedures before agreeing on the extent (depth and/or frequency) of its evaluation. Such a system would act to reduce the administrative burden on better-founded institutions and to encourage higher standards of internal quality assurance procedures across the sector.

The Society would wish to be involved in planning how external review by the new quality assurance agency should be performed.

The Biochemical Society acknowledges the diversity of missions within the HE sector (paragraph 19) but is concerned that this does not lead to diversity of outcomes for students graduating with particular qualifications. Although it does not accredit courses at present, the Society considers it essential that the academic level of the course, the extent of provision, and the standard achieved by students completing it, should be appropriate for the level of qualification being offered. The Society considers it a particular problem that a uniform degree structure is offered by a very heterogeneous set of higher education institutions to a cohort of students with widely ranging abilities. The Society considers that in order to facilitate the work of the new quality assurance agency there needs to be established a typological framework for undergraduate qualifications similar to that proposed in the Harris Review of Postgraduate Education, indicating entry requirements, type of course, and expected outcomes in terms of competences. Use of the title of Bachelor may have to become more restricted. The Biochemical Society has recently recommended a core curriculum that could form the basis of undergraduate courses in the molecular and life sciences without undermining the desire for diversity of different institutions.

The Society would welcome the opportunity to contribute to the process of agreeing collectively the methods of assessment of attainment in the biological sciences.

Members of external review teams
In order to secure the confidence of the academic community it is essential that members of the review teams are respected in their particular specialisation and that the procedure for their appointment is perfectly transparent. There is a danger in the proposal to allow heads of institutions to select review teams (paragraph 26) that reviewers will be selected from only a subset of HE institutions, leading to fragmentation of quality assurance criteria.

In a rapidly evolving subject area such as biological sciences the review team needs to be constituted mainly of peers from this same sector and representatives from public bodies and industry with a direct interest in the subject. There should be a large element of continuity within each cycle of reviews so that constructive advice can be offered on good practice and innovation , as observed at other institutions. The Biochemical Society would wish to be consulted on nominations to the panel of trained reviewers. It has members in senior positions in both academia and industry, has an active Professional and Education Committee (evidenced by the core curriculum document), has a finger on the pulse of change, and so is in an excellent position to make recommendations.

Furthermore, the new agency should consider whether it would wish to fund the Biochemical Society, perhaps in collaboration with sister societies and the Institute of Biology, to develop, and report on, examples of good practice in the biological sciences that could be used to inform the appropriate review teams.

Constitution of the new agency
The molecular life sciences have a vital role to play in the future for Britain's economic competitiveness and for enhancing the quality of life of society in general. This is evidenced, for instance, by biological sciences and biotechnology. contributing importantly to five of the eleven generic SET priorities identified in the Technology Foresight programme. Therefore the Society considers it essential that a representative of this sector sits on the board of the proposed new agency as one of the 'independent' directors.

Condition of funding
The Biochemical Society supports the recommendation (paragraph 35) that the funding councils should make it a condition of their grants that institutions draw on the new agency's services as necessary in order to ensure quality and the maintenance of standards.

The Biochemical Society,
59 Portland Place,
London W1B 1QW;
Tel: 020 7580 5530; Fax: 020 7637 3626;