Higher education quality assurance

The Department's underpinning statutory responsibility to make provision for the assessment of the quality of provision that it funds are set out under Article 102 of the Education and Libraries (NI) Order 1986.

Revised operating model for quality assessment

The Revised operating model for quality assessment sets out the operating model for quality assessment in Northern Ireland from 2017/18 onwards.

Annual Provider Review (APR)

The Annual Provider Review (APR) is a desk-based and a low-burden process using existing data analysis and assurance processes. Institutions do not need to submit any additional returns. Instead, the new review brings together existing processes in a more structured way.

APR is the core mechanism to assess quality in the higher education providers we fund. Its key features are:

  • it draws on existing data and information: there will be no new data requests nor a requirement for any annual APR submission
  • indicators and metrics are used in a contextualised and rounded way
  • judgements on quality and standards matters are reached through peer review.


The appeals process for a provider’s APR outcome is explained in the APR guidance on page 7. Providers have 14 working days to submit an appeal on the grounds of procedural irregularity, that is, that the published process has not been followed.

Assurances from governing bodies

We use existing processes for collecting assurances from governing bodies to support the APR. These processes also cover the student academic experiences, student outcomes, and the standard of awards. 

Universities and University Colleges need to include these assurances as part of their Annual Accountability Return. Further Education Colleges will be asked to submit the assurances through a tailored template on an annual basis.

Annual Provider Review Outcomes

The Department makes final judgements on quality and standards informed by the recommendations of an independent Office for Students (OfS) Group established for this purpose. Judgements will fall into one of three outcomes: 

  • Meets requirements - The provider will continue to undergo APR in subsequent years.
  • Meets requirements with conditions - The provider will continue to undergo APR in subsequent years, but with an action plan to address areas of immediate concern.
  • Pending - The provider will be referred for further investigation and intervention.

The current APR guidance for Northern Ireland sets out the way we will operate the APR process.

Due to Covid-19 the APR for 2019/20 has been cancelled and 2018/19 outcomes stand.

The outcomes of the APR process for academic year 2018/19 are set out below:

Institution UKPRN Provider status APR Outcome
Queen's 10005343 Established

Meets Requirements

Ulster 10007807 Established

Meets Requirements

Stranmillis 10008010 Established

Meets Requirements

St Mary's 10008026 Established

Meets Requirements

Belfast Met 10020680 Established

Meets Requirements

NRC 10020372 Established

Meets Requirements

SERC 10020699 Established

Meets Requirements

NWRC 10020634 Established

Meets Requirements

SWC 10020685 Established

Meets Requirements

SRC 10020633 Established

Meets Requirements

Details of the quality outcomes for individual English HE Providers can be found in the searchable Register of HE Providers on the OfS website.

More information on Welsh HE Providers can be found on the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) website. 

More information on Scottish HE Providers can be found on the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) website

UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment (UKSCQA)

Professor Andrew Wathey CBE, Vice-Chancellor of Northumbria University, has been appointed as Chair of the new UK-wide Standing Committee for Quality Assessment.

The committee will provide sector-led oversight of those aspects of quality assessment arrangements that continue to be shared across the UK. It will play a key role in promoting quality, standards, and the student interest, and will support a co-regulatory approach by bringing together academic expertise and students with regulatory and other bodies.

UK Quality Code for Higher Education

In October 2017, UKSCQA launched an extensive consultation on the UK Quality Code, which was co-ordinated by the QAA for Higher Education on behalf of all members of UKSCQA.

The new Expectations and practices of the Code have been published and  form the basis of a fully revised UK Quality Code for Higher Education, which was published in November 2018. The Expectations and practices have benefited from valuable engagement across all four nations and the full diversity of the sector, throughout the consultation

Details of the new UK Quality Code for Higher Education can be found on the UKSCQA website.

Revised Transnational Education (TNE) Review

As part of the revised operating model for quality assessment the QAA for Higher Education consulted on the method for quality assessing UK transnational education. Transnational Education (TNE) Review applies to all UK degree-awarding bodies offering higher education qualifications delivered entirely, or in part, oversees. The revised TNE Review Handbook is now available. 

Following agreement with the UK funding bodies, The Republic of Ireland, Hong Kong and Malaysia were selected for in-country reviews under the newly developed TNE Review method.

Unsatisfactory Quality Schemes (UQS)

The Unsatisfactory Quality Scheme (UQS) allows issues about higher education degree standards or the quality of the student academic experience to be reported to the Department for the Economy. It began on 1 August 2016 and applies to all DfE publicly funded higher education providers in Northern Ireland.

The scheme is a two stage process and operates alongside the Department's Whistleblowing guidelines. Both of these processes allow us to ensure that the providers we fund are run in the interests of students, the taxpayer and other stakeholders.

How to use the scheme to report an issue

Stage one of the process will be undertaken by the Office for Students on behalf of the Department.

If your issue is not resolved through the initial investigation and there is enough evidence to support it, it will proceed to a full stage-two investigation. The purpose of a full investigation is to examine the evidence submitted and to ascertain if there are serious issues relating to standards or the academic experience affecting a group of students. The QAA will be running stage-two investigations. It will make recommendations to the DfE UQS panel which will agree the final outcome.

The provider’s action plans to address the recommendations of the UQS panel will be published on the provider’s website.

The Department does not resolve complaints or offer compensation to individuals. Students can raise individual complaints through their respective institutions complaints processes and, if they remain dissatisfied after completing the college or university’s complaints procedure, they can complain to the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman.

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