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 to be implementated in Northern Ireland from 2017/18.

Annual Provider Review (APR)

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

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

  • it will draw on existing data and information: there will be no new data requests nor a requirement for any annual APR submission
  • indicators and metrics will be used in a contextualised and rounded way
  • judgements on quality and standards matters will be 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 are using existing processes for collecting assurances from governing bodies to support the APR. These processes will also cover the student academic experiences, student outcomes, and the standard of awards. 

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

Annual Provider Review Outcomes

The Department will make the final judgements informed by the recommendations from an 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 APR guidance for Northern Ireland sets out the way we will operate the APR process in 2018-19.

The outcomes of the APR process for academic year 2017/18 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. 

Quality Review Visit 

The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) as part of the operating model for quality assessment, will undertake Quality Review Visits of higher education providers. 

The purpose of the Quality Review Visit Handbook 2017-18 is to state the aims of Quality Review Visit, set out the approach to be used and give guidance to providers preparing for, and taking part in, Quality Review Visits.

This version of the handbook applies to reviews taking place in the 2017-18 academic year.

Northern Ireland Quality Review Visit Briefing Note 2017/18

To provide QAA reviewers with a Northern Ireland context and to outline some of the key differences in data collection and institutional arrangements here compared to English Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) and Further Education Colleges (FECs) the Department for the Economy produced the Northern Ireland QRV Briefing note. This should be read in conjunction with the QAA’s QRV handbook (above).

Survival Guide for Lead Student Representatives (LSRs)

Guidance has been written to provide lead student representatives with information about the Quality Review Visit method. The Survival Guide for Lead Student Representatives, provides an overview of the review process, including specific guidance about the role of the LSR.

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.

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 now been published. These will form the basis of a fully revised UK Quality Code, which is scheduled for publication in late 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 consultation, an analysis of the responses and the resultant new UK Quality Code for Higher Education can be found on the UKSCQA website.

The QAA, on behalf of UKSCQA, will be working with the sector throughout 2018 to develop a full set of advice and guidance that will help assure higher education providers that they deliver programmes to the standard their students should expect. A series of workshops to aid with the development of the fine details will be held in all four regions during May 2018.

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 have been selected for the next three years of 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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