Raspberries & Chocolate by Joanna Kosinska

Life’s like a box of chocolates: Working on Quality Street

Forest Gump comparing life to ‘a box of chocolates’ is a great movie moment, but can it really be applied to our experiences of introducing a new University wide quality assurance framework? There was certainly an element of trepidation as the new team embarked on their first University Quality Team (UQT) reviews and Periodic Programme Revalidations (PPRs), with the mission of reviewing the entirety of our taught and research educational provision in the 19/20 academic year. But – as we reach the end, and even with the challenges presented by COVID19 – this year has provided us with some ‘sweet’ experiences to reflect on. So, read on to hear our chocolate themed comparisons for this new University quality framework and process.

Tap and Unwrap …..

The basic model for all the quality team’s work – whether a quick, ‘health-check’ UQT reviews or the more intensive Periodic Programme Revalidation can be compared to the chocolate orange. From the outside programmes look like perfectly smooth, well-formed spheres. The review is a tap and unwrap: it enables a panel of University Education Directors (including us), colleagues from AQPO and Student Quality Reviewers to look at the segments – the units, detail and data that make up the whole. Sometimes this review confirms what the data we’ve looked at – student feedback, TEF metrics, progression and award data, demographics, examiner reports etc – suggests. More often, hidden away within many programmes, we discover pockets of brilliance the data hasn’t shown us. Brilliance in the form of innovative pedagogy, supervision, co-created units, amazing support and care for our students, and a wealth of opportunities waiting for students to thrive on. Brilliance that should make us proud to be part of an institution like Bristol, but which we often forget to celebrate … especially when times are challenging. 

The Chewy Bits

However, we can’t pretend that staff always welcome the Quality Team with open arms. Quality assurance is often viewed like the chewy toffee in the Quality Street Christmas tin – hard-work, something to tackle …. and usually avoided until it is the only thing left. We hope the first year of the new framework and light-touch review process has helped with that less than positive viewpoint. Certainly, our reliance on existing data sources in place of relying on programmes and Schools to generate copious amounts of paperwork has been welcomed. So too have the rich collaborative discussions that have emerged between members of the Faculty/School/programme teams and the review panels. Dialogue that centres on improving the educational experience for our students, hearing and responding to the challenges faced by staff, and sharing experiences and approaches. In person we hope that we can be closer to the calming, smoothness of a Galaxy chocolate bar, than the arduous chewing of the leftover toffee.

A good mix

And what of the famous Quality Street favourite – The Purple One. Where does that fit into our sweet themed story of quality? The success of the nation’s most popular Quality Street is down to its combination of flavours, the complimentary tastes and textures of sweet chocolate, silky caramel and hard nut. There is little doubt that a key element in the success of the new quality framework is teamwork. The mixture of knowledge, skills and experiences that are brought together when academics, professional service members of AQPO and trained student quality reviewers co-create a review, exchange ideas and identify priorities.

So, what are the quality teams plans for the next academic year? Certainly, the introduction of the new framework this year appears positive and whilst we will refine and improve processes based on feedback, no large-scale changes are planned. An essential element of our activity will be consideration of the impact of COVID-19. This virus has left us all reeling and wondering if life will return to the ‘normal’ we remember. Currently, tremendous effort is being invested into converting our programmes into blended learning experiences. This experience needs to comply with social distancing and our estate limitations, match discipline expectations, support students, be achievable for staff workloads AND be of the quality and standards expected from Bristol. The government statement indicating any reduction in the quality of provision due to COVID-19 should be reflected in lower tuition fees means as institution we will need to be able to illustrate that whilst the pandemic has necessitated significant change that will result is a different experience for students it will not be of a lower quality. And that’s, to a large extent, our job. But we also want to use the process to assure and support staff as they develop, evaluate and change their online and blended activities. If our experiences of 19/20 are anything to go by Bristol is more than ready for this challenge. We cannot underestimate the complexity, or the scale of work involved. But even with this caveat it is clear that our staff will continue to care about their students, they will continue to inspire, to excite, to create an environment for students to thrive and to challenge them with a world class, high quality education. There is little more a University could ask for.

By Kate Whittington and Catherine Hindson by behalf of the University Quality Team.

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