ASSURING ACADEMIC STANDARDS OF AWARDS (TAUGHT PROGRAMMES)
ASSURING ACADEMIC STANDARDS OF AWARDS (TAUGHT PROGRAMMES)
Under its Charter, the University has powers:
"To grant and confer Degrees, Diplomas, Certificates and other academic distinctions on persons who shall have pursued a course of study or research approved by the University and shall have passed such examinations, tests or other assessments as shall be prescribed by the University."
The University has in place a number of structures and processes which are designed to assure the standards of its provision and meet the expectation of internal University consistency by reference to the University's generic standards, and also to fulfill national generic and subject benchmarks. This statement summarises these processes. They include the responsibilities of the committees, the regulatory framework, programme approval and monitoring processes, assessment rules, practice and conventions, the role of external examiners, and staff development. Further information is contained on the Academic Office website and in other published documentation. The University has adopted a set of Principles of Standards Assurance and Quality Management.
The Senate is responsible for ordering the academic affairs of the University. In respect of taught programmes, the Academic Standards and Quality Enhancement Committee (ASQEC) keeps under review and advises Senate or acts under delegated authority on matters relating to the standards and regulatory framework for awards, the structure of programmes, and their initial approval and re-approval and the ongoing monitoring of quality. The Academic Planning Advisory Group (APAG) considers the introduction of new courses in the context of the academic plan, and makes recommendations for courses to proceed to planning and evaluation.
The Learning and Teaching Committee has oversight of the Learning and Teaching Strategy, policy and practice in curriculum design and the pedagogy of teaching and learning and assessment.
The Committees work through a number of sub-committees and validation panels and consults with Faculties and Departments in conducting their business.
The current committee structure is under review (2016).
3 DEFINITION OF STANDARDS
3.1 Qualifications and Credit Framework
In 1991, the University adopted a modular course structure and a credit system for the delivery of its courses. This was updated from 2002/3 and again in 2009 in light of the national Framework for Higher Education Qualifications (FHEQ) within the UK Quality Code maintained by the Quality Assurance Agency. Each taught qualification offered by the University is located within the Qualifications and Credit Framework and its range of credit points and levels are specified. The Framework makes explicit the relationship between awards within an overall hierarchy. The University’s awards conform to UK Quality Code definitions and the Framework identifies the location of the award within the FHEQ.
In addition, the University has adopted the generic level descriptors of the Northern Ireland Credit and Accumulation Transfer System (NICATS) for the levels within its awards. These descriptions are widely used by other universities in the UK, and are now known as the EWNI (England, Wales, and Northern Ireland) descriptors.
For detailed information on the Framework see Regulatory Framework.
3.2 Graduate Qualities and Benchmark Standards
In June 2011, the then Teaching and Learning Committee approved an updated statement of the qualities expected of a graduate of the University of Ulster. The qualities are stated in broad, generic terms. For its own provision the University adopted in 2015 a set of Principles underpinning the Student Experience. They reflect the Graduate Qualities and focus on the academic curriculum.
External reference points contributing to the definition and maintenance of standards for subjects and courses are the QAA Subject Benchmark statements and, where appropriate, the standards set by professional, statutory and regulatory bodies.
The curriculum in all provision is expected to be relevant, current and appropriate to the level of the programme.
3.3 Regulations for Awards
The University has standard regulations for each of its awards. Regulations specify minimum thresholds with regard to:
Course-specific regulations are drawn up in accordance with these regulations. Templates assist course teams in drafting these. A standard template applies for students taking Major/Main/Minor subject combinations in Honours degrees. Subject to approval at evaluation or revalidation, course/subject committees have discretion to specify subject entry requirements and to identify modules in which the threshold standard must be achieved in both assessment elements or specific components in order to be passed (see 3.5 below).
Regulations are kept under review and updated in the light of developing policy and practice internally and nationally, with the aim of ensuring and maintaining fairness, consistency and clarity.
Examples of developments to support this objective have been the abolition of the Pass band in classified undergraduate degrees and the extension of the third class band to 40 – 49%; a general rule to base classification of undergraduate Honours degrees on Level 6 work only, and in 2009 extension of the 'exit velocity' principle to all awards; removal of requirement to repeat work already passed, for candidates undertaking supplementary coursework; removal from Boards of Examiners of the power to deem candidates to have passed assessment, which has been marked at a level below the pass mark on account of extenuating circumstances, except in consideration for an Aegrotat award; raising by 5% the performance level at which condonement might apply, and removal of Faculty discretion in setting this level, and from 2009 removal of the concept of condonement; removal of discretionary viva voce examinations; introduction of Honours classification in integrated Master’s degree from 2013, and a Commendation band in postgraduate courses from 2015; and introduction of a new ‘extended’ Master’s degree from 2016/17.
Any general changes to regulations are usually introduced from the following session (unless they are considered to be to the advantage of students). Amendments are permitted following a student’s registration in order to ensure that, as far as possible, only one set of regulations applies to a particular programme.
Award regulations set out the minimum requirements for admission. Regulations may set specific subject requirements. For undergraduate courses and subjects, the standards are set out in the terms of GCE A Level and GCSE, and other qualifications, such as Edexcel Diploma/Certificate, Irish Leaving Certificate, Scottish Higher, International Baccalaureate, and Access to HE awards.
At postgraduate level, the minimum entry standard for a Postgraduate Certificate or Diploma is a degree, and for a Master’s course a second class honours degree.
The University’s Global Engagement Department advises on the acceptability of overseas qualifications, drawing on its own expertise and the advice of recognised authorities (British Council/NARIC), if necessary. Minimum standards for English language competence are set.
The prospectuses and the University’s website carries information on general entrance requirements and the specific initial offer standard for each programme. The latter may vary from year to year and at the time of confirmation of offers in the light of supply and demand factors, but the University maintains minimum acceptance standards.
Approval of the initial offer standard for full-time undergraduate courses and any subsequent adjustment is given by the Academic Planning Advisory Group as part of the process to manage the student intake.
Applicants may seek exemptions on the basis of relevant studies at the level of the programme, or through evidence of prior experiential learning (see below), subject to a requirement to register for the final third of the programme in courses with a credit value of 180 credit points or more. In shorter courses, students must undertake at least the final half of the programme.
The University intends that its selection and recruitment procedures are fair and transparent. Selection to undergraduate and postgraduate taught programmes is managed by Faculties in accordance with the University’s Admissions Policy, and published procedures and award regulations.
The University’s Department of Strategy, Planning and Performance produces annual intake profiles, analysing entry qualifications and standards for each programme. These are reviewed annually. In addition, Equal Opportunities data are collated and analysed for each intake to assist the University in determining the effectiveness of its equal opportunities policy.
The University is committed to widening participation and recognising achievement by a variety of means. The University has a Widening Access and Participation Strategy and various initiatives support it. The ‘Step-Up’ scheme works closely with schools without a tradition of university entry to raise awareness and aspiration and promote progression opportunities. A structured and assessed academic support programme is implemented and students who successfully complete this programme receive a reduced grade offer.
While academic ability is the primary factor in determining a candidate’s admission, the University also recognises that students may have developed other competences and skills which may indicate an ability to succeed at university. In this regard the University has developed the talented athlete scheme through which applicants may receive a reduced grade offer. The University has drawn up detailed criteria to ensure the transparent operation of this policy.
Prior Experiential Learning
The University’s award regulations do not allow admission to the first year of a programme or with advanced standing which is not supported by evidence of appropriate learning achieved through study or experience (experience alone is not sufficient).
Subject to certain limits, students may claim exemption from modules, or seek to demonstrate that they meet the entry requirements for a course, on the basis of the accreditation of prior experiential learning (APEL) as distinct from certificated learning. The University has approved a policy and guiding principles to support faculties in considering such claims.
3.5 Assessment: Threshold Standards and Classification of Awards
The University generally uses percentage marks to record student performance. There are standard pass marks for modules - 40% in undergraduate levels and 50% in postgraduate level 7. There are standard classification bands for Honours degrees and in other awards grade bands of Commendation (60%), Distinction (70%) are used with the Pass standard set at 40% in undergraduate awards and 50% in postgraduate awards. The Commendation band was introduced from 2015 intake in postgraduate courses and the Distinction in non-Honours undergraduate courses from 2009/10. These are published in regulations.
A pass in a module is defined as the achievement of the overall pass mark, with a minimum mark of not less than 5% below this threshold in each assessment element where a module is assessed by a combination of coursework and examination. In undergraduate modules, students must achieve an overall mark of 40% with a minimum of 35% in each element; an overall mark of 50% with a minimum mark of 45% in each element is required for level 7 modules.
Course/subject committees have the option of specifying in regulations a requirement for the threshold standard to be achieved in each element or in all or specified components of each assessment element. Assessment elements are defined as the two forms of assessment of a module, coursework and examination. The element may comprise a number of components.
From 2009/10, the University removed the concept of condonement of failure.
Arising from consideration of the section of the QAA Code of Practice dealing with Assessment and a concern for fairness to students, the University established in 2001 a general principle that classification in undergraduate Honours degree is based entirely on Level 6 module results (with effect from 2001 intake).
A further review in 2008/9 extended the 'exit velocity' principle to all awards (from 2009 intake). The summary classification in a University of Ulster award is determined by achievement at the highest credit level. The classification represents a summative assessment on the basis of the most recent evidence at the most challenging level. (The full transcript evidences achievement in each module at the time it was taken.) Exceptions to this rule are only permitted in Honours degrees where a professional, statutory or regulatory body (PSRB) requires a Level 5 contribution or where a faculty makes a convincing case to the Learning and Teaching Committee. The norm in such instances is for a 25% contribution from Level 5. The algorithm for Honours degree classification is under review (2017).
The credit value of the module determines its weight in the overall result.
From 2009, the University removed the requirement for the overall award class/grade standard to be achieved in at least 50% of the modules contributing as well as in the overall average.
In certain programmes or modules or elements of modules, performance is assessed on a pass/fail basis. This practice applies where candidates must meet certain key competences and a qualitative differentiation is not deemed necessary or appropriate. Examples include clinical placement, the PGCE and the Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education Practice.
3.6 Assessment Policies and Practices
The University expects a range of assessment methods to be used and for the assessment to be appropriate to the level of the module and programme. The appropriateness of strategies is judged at University level through the University’s evaluation and re-validation processes, and adjustments are also being made in light of comments from external examiners and students.
Traditionally, assessment strategies have been developed at subject and programme level, relying on the established and developing practices and approaches within the discipline, and the professionalism of academic staff. During the 1990s, the HE sector gave particular attention to the business of assessment through the development of credit and modular frameworks, increasing transparency and explicitness in expectations for student work, the adoption of learning outcomes and assessment criteria in the description of modules, and the general quality assurance agenda.
Much work has been done by course and subject teams and in Faculties in defining and publishing criteria for student assessment in terms of individual pieces of work, modules, levels and awards. A number of faculties have adopted guidelines or codes of practice in such matters as setting and marking examination papers and coursework assignments, with marking schemes (and the standards associated with mark bands) and model answers in common use. Such procedures are often shared in the relevant University committee and either developed into University guidelines or codes, or commended to other faculties.
The University has been concerned to ensure greater consistency of practice across the institution in a number of aspects of assessment. While recognising differing conventions in subject areas, the University took steps to encourage the use of the full range of marks in assessment and has set minimum standards with regard to internal moderation, double marking and the assessment of individual contributions in group work. A policy on plagiarism and the penalties which might apply was introduced in 2007 (reviewed 2012) and guidelines on dealing with claims of extenuating circumstances affecting student performance have been developed.
The University had not published comprehensive guidance on assessment policy and practice in a single document until 2001. The publication of the section of QAA Code of Practice on Assessment gave renewed impetus to consideration of this topic. A commentary was received by the then Teaching and Learning Committee in October 2000 and a working group was established with the remit of drawing up a University-wide Assessment Handbook, which is regularly updated. The Handbook is a practical guide for the assistance of academic staff. It complements detailed subject/Faculty level statements of assessment strategy.
The Handbook contains the broad generic assessment criteria relating to classification and mark bands which apply across the institution, differentiated by level for quantitative and qualitative work (introduced from 2002/3). Academic staff working in different subjects thus have a common understanding of what each mark band represents in terms of student achievement. These criteria assist in the review and refinement of subject-specific criteria.
The University expects programme and module descriptions to provide information on intended learning outcomes, assessment strategies and performance criteria. This information is also contained in programme specifications and the course/subject and/or module handbooks which are required to be issued to students.
Data on the performance of students in modules and programmes are routinely provided from the central student record system to course/subject teams, Faculties and the University, for meetings of Board of Examiners and annual monitoring processes. Through the use of means and standard deviations for modules and overall course profiles, this assists in identifying modules/courses where assessment results may be at odds with the normal pattern for the cohort or the Faculty, and which may require further scrutiny.
A system of anonymous marking of examination scripts has been in place since 1999/2000. Anonymous marking of coursework is encouraged where feasible. Internal moderation of assessment is required and a University-wide policy has been established. The Assessment Handbook elaborates different approaches to double marking. The external examiner system provides external moderation.
The Centre for Higher Education Research and Practice provides support for subject/course teams and it has a website on assessment issues. Principles of Assessment and Feedback for Learning were adopted in 2011.
4 New Programme Approval
The procedures for approval are described in detail in the Programme Approval, Management and Review Handbook and the Partnership Handbook.
A new course or undergraduate honours subject is developed by a course or subject planning committee set up for that purpose. This committee includes key staff who will be involved in delivery and, where appropriate, representatives from industry or the professions who can advise on curriculum content, desirable skills and specific training needs. The planning committee is asked to take account of the University's criteria for the planning of new programmes as set out in the Handbook. The planning committee prepares an outline proposal which is submitted, with Faculty Board approval, to the Academic Planning Advisory Group (APAG. It considers the proposal in the context of the University’s Objects, Strategic Plan and Academic Plan and makes recommendations to Senate through one of its committees as to whether planning should proceed.
APAG has a specific brief to look in detail at new proposals, and its membership includes staff from the Library, Planning, Employability and Marketing, and the Academic Office. It ensures close University-level scrutiny of proposals and addresses the need to make explicit the relationship between academic planning and resourcing. As well as reviewing additional resource requirements, the Advisory Group gives detailed consideration to the evidence of demand, both in terms of potential recruitment and likely demand for graduates, before agreeing to recommend approval for planning and evaluation.
Where additional resource needs are identified by the Faculty, appropriate discussions are held with the relevant central departments. The service departments are then expected to report to APAG or the evaluation panel on any outstanding issues. In addition, Faculties are met with annually to update the Academic Plan as part of the University’s planning process. While this exercise includes the identification of potential new developments, detailed scrutiny and planning approval is considered through APAG.
If planning approval is given, the course/subject planning committee proceeds to prepare a detailed evaluation document.
An evaluation panel to consider the detailed proposal is established by the Academic Office. This Panel is normally chaired by a Pro-Vice-Chancellor or (Associate) Dean or Head of School from another Faculty and includes a representative from another Faculty within the University, a Students' Union officer and two external members. External members are subject specialists from other universities. If appropriate, representatives from industry or the professions may also be added to the panel.
The University aims to organise joint validations with the relevant PSRB, wherever possible. Where separate accreditation visits take place, reports on outcomes are received by the Academic Standards and Quality Enhancement Committee (ASQEC).
The purpose of the evaluation is to consider whether key standards appropriate for the new course or subject strand are met or are likely to be met, and that the provision meets the University’s core objectives.
Members of the Panel receive general guidance notes and subject benchmarking (and PSRB) information together with the submission, and are invited to provide written comments in advance of the meeting.
The Panel meets with the team to discuss the proposal in detail. The Panel decides whether or not it should be recommended for approval and what conditions, if any, should attach to that approval. The Panel may also include suggestions and recommendations on matters for further consideration by the course team. A written report of the meeting is prepared. The team is required to respond on matters raised by the Panel by a specified date and must demonstrate that any conditions identified have been met before the planned date of the first intake or that there is an appropriate action plan to address these matters. The team is not required to implement other recommendations or suggestions made by the Panel but must show that these have been fully considered.
Panel recommendations for approval are made to ASQEC.
In addition to its response to the Panel report, the team must provide a revised document, if required. The response and revised document are checked by the Academic Office to ensure that the Panel report is fully met. The Academic Office reports to the Chairperson of the Panel, and if he or she is satisfied the document is given final approval.
The Academic Office prepares for ASQEC an annual summary statement of evaluations (and revalidations – see 6) undertaken during the session and their outcomes together with a report on any issues of a general nature which have been identified.
Revisions to approved programmes are submitted by the Course/Subject Committee using form CA3 to the Faculty for approval. The Course/Subject Committee must ensure that student consent is obtained if the proposed change will affect significantly current students, and that the external examiner is consulted. This information is recorded on the form.
The former Learning and Teaching Committee has confirmed that revisions should be considered at Faculty level, for example by a Faculty teaching and learning committee. Deadlines for the submission of the CA3 form are set to ensure that they are processed before the change takes effect.
The Academic Office reviews the changes to ensure that they are in line with University policies and practices. The Office reports revisions to the next meeting of ASQEC for information. Certain revisions (such as changes of course title, location, or mode of attendance) require consideration by APAG before final approval. Proposed departures from University regulations are considered by ASQEC.
All programmes are re-approved through the revalidation process in accordance with a five-year cycle. Generally groupings of courses and Honours subject strands within revalidation units are considered together, although certain courses may be considered individually, particularly if professional, statutory or regulatory bodies are involved. The process is similar to evaluation and is concerned with the re-affirmation of standards for the awards and courses/subjects within the unit and their continuing currency and relevance to the University’s purpose. Revalidation panels meet with students to obtain their views directly and a student representative is a member of the panel.
7 External Examiners
External Examiners are appointed for all courses and undergraduate Honours subjects, with specified module responsibilities. Their chief responsibilities are to ensure that academic standards are maintained and that individual students are treated fairly.
During 1994/95, the University undertook a major review of its external examining arrangements for taught courses, partly prompted by the national review ongoing at that time. Recommendations implemented following the University review were a requirement for an induction visit by external examiners new to the University, a revised report form and the publication of a comprehensive External Examiners' Handbook detailing their role and responsibilities. Arrangements were reviewed again in 2000 and 2004 in the light of the relevant section of the QAA Code of Practice, and subsequently in 2011 in light of a national review and publication of the revised chapter of the UK Quality Code and relevant documentation was updated as appropriate. University-level induction was introduced in 2003.
External examiners are nominated by Faculties in accordance with the criteria set out in the University’s Code of Practice. While they are generally drawn from the UK HE system, professional practitioners may also be appointed. In addition, a significant proportion of external examiners are from the Republic of Ireland. While this country is not part of the UK HE system, its awards and conventions are recognised as being broadly comparable. However, the University is aware that those appointed from the Republic cannot be expected to have the same degree of familiarity with current issues and approaches as an examiner from the UK system, for example, with regard to credit levels, modularity, Subject Benchmarks and the national Qualifications Framework. Induction information is of particular importance for such appointees, as well as other examiners who are not familiar with the UK HE system.
With the exception of degree modules at Levels 3 or 4 which do not contribute to an award (eg an exit award), course and subject external examiners are required to approve all draft assessment papers and coursework assessment schemes in advance, and to have access to all examination scripts and coursework. This requirement reflects the importance of external examiner involvement in coursework, which is a major component of many assessment strategies, so as to ensure that it receives similar attention to written examinations. Involvement at Level 3 and 4 is welcomed.
Each external examiner is required to submit an annual report commenting, inter alia, on the standard of marking and the quality of candidates’ work, in relation to the level of the award, with reference to standards at other institutions, the national Qualifications Framework and Subject Benchmarks.
The report is a key component in the University’s standards and quality assurance procedures. It is received by the Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Education) and a detailed response is required from the course/subject committee. The report and response are considered formally within the annual monitoring processes. ASQEC also receives an annual overview report identifying general issues arising from external examiners' reports.
8 Assurance of Internal and External Comparability of Standards
The University arrangements are subject to regular audit by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education. The last audit (March 2010) confirmed that confidence can be placed in the soundness of the University's current and likely future management of the academic standards of its awards.
The University seeks to ensure comparability of standards in its awards. The roles of University-wide regulations and an internal awards framework are mentioned above. In addition, the University has well established course approval and review procedures. These incorporate appropriate elements of externality (to the Faculty and the University) in order to achieve objectivity in the process, comparability of standards, and to ensure that documentation meets the University’s standards.
Internal members of validation panels are drawn from outside the Faculty and panels are usually chaired by a Pro-Vice-Chancellor or (Associate) Dean or Head of School from another Faculty. External subject experts and, where appropriate, professional, statutory and regulatory body representatives are involved.
Statistical data produced for annual monitoring include summary Faculty tables of student success, failure and withdrawal and final award (by class). Where available national benchmark data are also provided. This allows direct comparison to be made.
The University develops University-wide codes of practice, guidelines and other statements in order to support consistent practice which contributes to the maintenance of standards and enhancement of quality. These are available from the Academic Office website. Examples include: Duties of Course/Subject Directors, Advisers of Studies, and Module Co-ordinators; terms of reference of Course/Subject Committees; Admissions Policy; APL Policy; Plagiarism Policy; Guidelines for Evaluation and Revalidation Panels; Assessment Handbook; Digital Learning; Codes of Practices: Academic Staff and Students with a Disability, Principles of Assessment and Feedback for Learning, External Examining, Induction, Placement and the assessment of the placement year, Study Abroad, Tutoring and Demonstrating by Postgraduate Teaching Assistants. An Ordinance on Fitness for Professional Practice was approved in 2004. Guidelines on dealing with extenuating circumstances and on plagiarism were introduced in 2006/7. Curriculum design principles are being drawn up in 2017.
Faculties have responsibility for developing their own management arrangements within the University framework to suit local circumstances in meeting University standards. Different approaches may be adopted, such as in Advisers of Studies, the review of poor performing students, receipting coursework and penalties for exceeding word limits.
The University committees are representative of the Faculties. This ensures ownership across the University of the decisions which are made as well as facilitating the consultation process and the dissemination of good practice and decisions.
9 Evaluation and Improvement of Procedures
The University’s procedures for academic standards are kept under review. Apart from a regular annual update of published procedures, the University aims to be responsive to internal and external developments. It may institute major reviews. Recent examples include the Assessment Handbook, annual monitoring and revalidation arrangements, plagiarism and the University’s Qualifications Framework. In addition, policies and practices are systematically reviewed in the light of each chapter of the QAA Quality Code.
The University’s procedures provide for comments from external examiners and from students, which are required to be acted upon. External examiner reports are discussed with student representatives and from 2011/12 are available to all students on the course along with the course team's response. Student views are formally obtained through staff/student consultative committees. Comments are considered within annual monitoring processes and at revalidation events. From 2011/12 student officers/representatives are members of revalidation panels. Faculties may raise issues at University level.
Improvements in the management of standards has been achieved by the enhancement of information provision. Guidelines and procedures have been developed where previously none existed. Key documents are now available to all staff and students through the University’s website.
While Faculties have primary responsibility for ensuring the quality of course provision, the University’s Academic Development and Enhancement Committee (ADEC), supported by the Quality Management and Audit Unit (QMAU), has a key role in monitoring quality and ensuring that improvements are implemented. Themed Audits have been conducted to review the effectiveness of processes and procedures in delivering and assuring quality in relation to specific aspects of course delivery or the student learning experience.
10 Quality of Teaching
Considerable emphasis is placed on the quality of teaching. Applicants for new academic posts are required at interview to give a brief presentation from a list of topics. If those full-time staff appointed have little or no previous experience of teaching in third level education or an appropriate teaching qualification, they are required to undertake the University's Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education Practice in order to develop their pedagogic and related skills. A range of other staff development programmes is available for other categories of staff with teaching roles as part of a coherent continuing professional development framework. There are Codes of Practice for e-Tutors and on Tutoring and Demonstrating by Postgraduate Teaching Assistants. Heads of School are also required to report annually on the teaching and examining performance of staff on probation. Performance in teaching is one of the criteria for staff promotion.
The results of the annual National Student Survey are considered by the Senate and by Faculties. A University-wide internal module-based student questionnaire scheme to evaluate student perceptions of teaching operates at the end of each semester (the Module Feedback Survey). Reports are available to all staff. A systematic peer-observation of teaching scheme has been developed to assist staff in the evaluation of their teaching. A peer-supported review process exists for experienced staff. A Distinguished Teaching Fellowship Award Scheme is in place. The Centre for Higher Education Research and Practice encourages engagement with the scholarship of teaching and learning and provides a focus for initiatives and dissemination.
There is a sub-committee of Learning and Teaching Committee for Professional Development which has oversight of policy and support.