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University Ofsted inspections more opportunity than risk

An African American university student is sitting in the library with his textbooks open on his lap, and studying

On 1 April 2021, Ofsted will formally take over the reins of university degree apprenticeship inspections. This covers all levels of study through to level 7. This change comes after nearly four years of lobbying.

The immediate response from universities was mixed. The Russell Group expressed concerns about “burdensome or disproportionate regulation” for institutions. Greg Walker, Chief Executive of MillionPlus, writing for FE Week, said that Ofsted did not ‘get’ universities and that an Ofsted inspection regime would amount to ‘clipping the wings’ of degree apprenticeships. The University Vocational Awards Council had already questioned Ofsted’s expertise to inspect specialist degree level subjects such as nursing, social work and architecture. 

All change

Why the change? It might have something to do with Ofsted’s Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman. She has spoken on several occasions, suggesting that universities are simply repackaging existing degree programmes. Meanwhile, the Office for Students, formerly responsible for inspecting levels 6 and 7 apprenticeships, has been known to take a more risk-based approach to inspections. This is in line with university and the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education’s cultures.

Somehow, quality assurance for degree apprenticeships had simply merged with that of traditional degrees”, says Kerry Boffey. Kerry is the Founder and CEO of the Fellowship of Inspection Nominees (FIN). It’s an organisation which brings together best practice around apprenticeship delivery and Quality Assurance.

Kerry goes on to say “if you are going to deliver an apprenticeship programme, the Education Inspection Framework is the standard it is measured against. So, all providers must work towards that standard, because it is about ensuring the standards are there. That’s a difficult pill for universities to swallow. They have traditionally, as a sector, largely set their own standards.

A challenge for universities?

But don’t universities have a unique way of delivering education, one very distinct from colleges and ITPs – even when it comes to apprenticeships? Greg Walker thinks so. He argues that Ofsted has already indicated that it is in favour of lower-level apprenticeships, aimed at young people. This is a stance which sits at odds with what employers want and the economy demands.

Furthermore, Ofsted’s focus on the skills and training aspects of degree apprenticeship ignores how levels 6 and 7 apprenticeships are all about integrating theory and practice. “The degree,” he says, “is not an optional extra to the apprenticeship standard – it is integral to it.

Boffey challenges the idea that Ofsted inspections of degree apprenticeships will fundamentally change what universities do. She argues that Ofsted has never been interested in standardisation:

Ofsted are interested in curriculum design and individualisation of it. They won’t constrain universities, and they aren’t interested in just the negatives. They are looking for good ideas, for things to praise. We want universities to bring their expertise into apprenticeships. Every provider has a unique idea.

What FIN aims to do is to change the way institutions prepare for inspections. If universities create a quality product that demonstrates they are working to the Education Inspection Framework, they won’t need to worry about inspections. In doing so, they will be “inspection-ready rather than preparing for inspection”.

At the same time, FIN recognises the risk to universities. Says Boffey, “The risk is reputational damage. Degree apprenticeships are a very small proportion of their income and delivery. It seems like quite a lot of hoops to jump through to meet that criteria.

Preparing for inspection

The extra hurdle of an Ofsted inspection might be daunting for universities, particularly if they have not yet established themselves in degree apprenticeships. However, there are ways to prepare for inspection.

For Boffey, protecting against the risks while making the most of the opportunities that Ofsted inspections offer means becoming self-aware with regards to the Framework’s criteria. Universities can defend themselves by understanding what they do well and what requires improvement. Then they need to show they are actioning what needs to change. Ofsted “are looking for you to have expectations that you want to be good or better or that it’s work in progress towards that,” she says.

For example, one core Ofsted criterion is governance and oversight. Universities, says Boffey, normally have excellent governance. But is it in line with the Framework?

They have to look at the criteria, see what they have in place and see whether it fits. It needs to be understood that the leadership are the drivers. They need to check, challenge and ask the right questions.

And certainly, organisations like FIN are there to help institutions become self-aware, even if no-one is yet clear on how Ofsted will interpret the Framework for levels 6 and 7. And FIN’s main message is that if you get the quality right, relatively smooth inspections will follow.

And Boffey also wants to remind us all what this is about – the learners:

Ofsted is a different way of working. They not the enemy. Ofsted are looking for what is in the best interests of the learners. They are looking for high standards. The Framework is seen as the best way to deliver those objectives.

You are doing something for the benefit of the learner, that’s in line with the Framework, that will also benefit your inspection readiness.

Allowing Ofsted to inspect university degree apprenticeship provision will be something of a culture shock, but is it essential that the sector has some perspective. Degree apprenticeships can be very different from traditional academic degrees. That’s why they require a different way of doing quality assurance. In the end, it is all about what is best for the learner.

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