29 Aug 2023

Interview with Douglas Blackstock, ENQA

In this interview, we talk to Douglas Blackstock, President of ENQA (the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education). He has held various roles, including six years as Chief Executive during nearly twenty years at the Quality Assurance Agency of the UK, and is a former President of (what is now) Glasgow Caledonian University Students’ Association and former Depute President of NUS Scotland, as well as former General Manager of three English students’ associations. Douglas holds various governance posts in education and regulation in the UK and internationally. He was recently awarded an Honorary Doctorate from Robert Gordon University for his contribution to UK higher education.

1. It’s a big year for the Scottish sector, celebrating twenty years of the Quality Enhancement Framework and sparqs. So, can we cast your mind back first to your own time as a student officer: how do you remember student engagement and partnership at that time? Indeed, would you have even used those terms?

I had originally gone to university in 1979, but it hadn’t worked out as I expected and so I didn’t complete first year. By the time I resumed studies in 1984, I had been a trades union rep and so one of the first things I did when enrolling at Glasgow College of Technology (now Glasgow Caledonian University) was go to the Union building and ask how to join. I confess I was bemused to find that I was automatically a member and there was no fee involved…

I met the Vice President, who encouraged me to stand for the Students’ Representative Council (SRC) as something called NUS Convenor and before I knew it we were trying to recruit SRC reps and course reps and having training sessions run by NUS Scotland staff. The sessions were aimed at giving reps some basic skills to be able to engage with University staff and how to operate in meetings. It was only a couple of hours and barely scratched the surface, but it was helpful.

Over my involvement in the SRC and then as Association President it was always a challenge getting course reps, and particularly recruiting an academic affairs officer for the Executive. The latter role was a huge responsibility but a thankless task. In 1987 we had an external review by the Council of National Academic Awards (one of the precursors to the Quality Assurance Agency), and the SA was invited to make a submission on our thoughts on the academic experience. Sharing the draft with the Principal was very helpful in getting action on issues which hadn’t seemed to progress.

One of the challenges in a smaller SA was covering the breadth of committees in the institution - I even found myself on the sub-committee of the Committee on Committee and Procedures! There was no support for this work, we were just expected to sink or swim. I know we could have been much more effective with more support.

Beyond the SA we also had NUS’s West of Scotland Area which by the late 1980s had received some funding from the old Strathclyde Region to support the development of Students’ Associations in the FE colleges, with dedicated staff committed to that work. In my time as Convenor there we focussed a lot on involving FE.

By the time I became Depute President of NUS Scotland I had become increasingly interested in different models. For example, the President of Strathclyde University Students’ Association attended the University management board meetings, and through involvement with the General Manager there I started to look at learning from the practice in the USA to support student activities.

So, there were seeds of what we would recognise as support for student engagement but it took until the early 2000s to become really concrete and sustainable.

2. And do you recall what it was like moving from a student officer role to students’ association staff positions, and from the Scottish to English sectors? Did the world look different in those transitions?

Really difficult. I had been a manager before I returned to full-time study, but not on that scale. The SU President and executive put a lot of trust in me and tolerated quite a few mistakes along the way.

Other than the different histories of how some of the Scottish SAs developed by amalgamation of SRCs and Unions, I didn’t see that much difference in the challenges and opportunities. The sector was about to see massive increases in student numbers and most institutions (and their Unions) weren’t really ready to cope with the influx – and I mean that in terms of accommodation but also structures to engage a larger and more diverse population.

When I arrived in 1992 at Thames Polytechnic (now the University of Greenwich) one enormous difference was that it had something like seventeen sites spread across South London, Central London and Kent. Little things like finding the requisite number of people to set up a genuinely campus-wide society was very difficult. This was in the days before we even had email! I got my first desktop PC and had no idea how to work it!

Around that time, the government-funded Enterprise in Higher Education programme was willing to fund some SUs for work in developing student leadership. I was lucky to get a grant to travel (with two sabbatical officers) to the Association of College Unions International (ACUI) in New England, USA. We visited institutions in five states and learned enough to establish a Student Leadership Programme, with staff to support training and restructure the SU to have an element of faculty and course representation, as well as site representation.

There were then a range of really important initiatives over the next few years. With the backing of the Association of Managers in Students’ Unions (AMSU) a new group called Student Activities and Development in Action (STADIA) was formed and NUS got funding from the Department of Education and Ford Motor Company to run the National Student Learning Programme (NSLP).

By the time I had left University of West of England to go to Warwick, STADIA was a really good resource to support a growing professional staff employed to support student engagement, and NSLP was training hundreds of student with the skills to train course reps. At Warwick the SU had sessions with over 250 course reps being trained by student trainers.

The problem with all of these initiatives is that none were sustainably funded.

3. Progressing on in time, you were at QAA at the time of the founding of sparqs and the creation of the Quality Enhancement Framework (QEF) in 2003. You were working at a UK level at the time, but did you get a sense then of what Scotland’s new direction looked like and was striving for?

The recently-developed system of QAA Academic Review was to be run UK-wide but had imploded because a unilateral decision was taken in England to end subject review. This was the starting point of divergence across the nations in terms of quality assurance practice. Political devolution was a fairly new development and Scotland, having already started Academic Review, chose to chart its own distinct path.

I was involved in the development of the new audit method for England in 2002 and was able, with the support of others, to get one aspect back which had been lost from the practice of the old CNAA, namely that SUs would have the right to make an independent submission to the QAA team, and whilst they were encouraged to share it with the institution, they also had the right to make it confidentially. In practice, very few did keep it confidential. We also worked with NUS and AMSU to start running events called “Quality Takes Time” for SUs and produce materials to support student engagement in quality assurance. But it was all run on a shoestring budget and there was a lot of internal and sector resistance, as there was later, when I took on transforming student engagement in QAA from 2006 onwards.

When colleagues from QAA Scotland started to share the thinking on the new QEF, I was initially (and wrongly) sceptical of some aspects. I mentioned earlier that I have seen many different governance models: my concern was that I knew some institutions (including in Scotland) would see students being involved as members of QAA review panels as an excuse to disregard the views of the SU. I also worried that students’ views being incorporated into a single self-assessment would not carry the same weight as an independent submission.

I sat down with NUS Scotland and was reassured that this new partnership was genuine, and it has proven so. The unique thing about the Scottish approach is that it has been an enduring commitment from the Scottish Funding Council, the students’ associations, the institutions, QAA and representative bodies to an approach which provides assurance that academic standards are being made but makes genuine strides to improve in the interests of students. Were it not for the support for student engagement, I am not sure the QEF would have the impact that it has evidently shown.

4. You mentioned partnership being genuine in Scotland’s approach, which is reassuring! But what do you think makes partnership genuine? What would your top tips be to staff and students on how they can recognise what is (and isn’t) true partnership?

I have been lucky enough to attend some of the Enhancement Themes and QAA Scotland events over the last twenty years, but also met regularly with the Universities Scotland Learning & Teaching Committee, many Principals and senior officials in the Scottish Funding Council as well as Scottish Ministers. The nature of the conversations in a partnership are just different from one where students are seen as consumers. This has been clear from Scottish contributions to UK bodies such as the UK Standing Committee on Quality Assessment and in Ministers’ speeches at EHEA Ministerial conferences that I have attended. Honestly, I think sparqs are probably better placed than me to demonstrate practical examples of partnership working in institutions.

5. You talked earlier about the problems in the past of developing the student voice, such as the lack of sustainability in funding, and it is interesting to learn about the different short-term funding initiatives from multiple sources you refer to over the years. Do you think that, in Scotland at least, changes in the last couple of decades have solved this? Nobody could claim that funding isn’t a challenge today, of course, but with two decades of sparqs, and many other projects such as Developing College Students’ Associations, to what extent do you think we have at least moved on from the argument about whether we need to fund good student engagement?

There will never be enough resource, because there is a constant change of the student cohort and there is always more that can be done. The long-term commitment to sparqs has been clear, but you will always need to guard against complacency, especially in times when government and sector funding comes under pressure.

There will be a constant need to demonstrate what value is added and test how the sparqs offer can be improved. One of my former colleagues at Warwick was fond of saying that in students’ unions we are brilliant at taking on new initiatives, but terrible at stopping ones that are no longer effective. My advice would be to take nothing for granted, because there are always good projects in search of funding.

6. Over sparqs’ existence you’ve been involved in various international higher education spaces and organisations. It is often said that Scotland is world-renowned for its work on student engagement, but what does your international experience tell you about Scotland’s reputation? And conversely, what do you think we should be learning from practice in other countries?

Whilst new bodies that I was involved in developing in both England and Wales have come and gone, sparqs has continued to thrive and is internationally respected. The sustainable commitment has allowed sparqs to develop unrivalled experience in the field. It has also always been outward looking, willing to learn and share practice and is well connected with colleagues across the rest of the UK who self-organise through the RAISE network. From Armenia to Ireland, I know colleagues have shown a great interest in the work of sparqs.

In the European Higher Education Area, which covers 47 countries, student engagement in quality assurance is a non-negotiable. There are some interesting new developments in the European Union that we are no longer part of, so I think it is important that sparqs connects with those students working across the new European Universities Alliances to hear how student engagement can work well where there are joint institutional programmes.

Student engagement is developing worldwide, too, and with the adoption of the UNESCO Global Convention on Recognition of Qualifications it is important to engage well beyond Scotland on these matters, as comparable quality assurance forms a key part of the declaration. In recent years we have seen the launch of the ASEAN QA Framework in South East Asia, the African Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance, and the SIACES Principles for Latin America [document in Spanish]. Culturally, many of these countries are very different, and the way student engagement evolves will not mimic a western European model, but that doesn’t mean there is nothing to learn.

7. Looking ahead, is it possible to foresee what’s next? What do you think the near future might hold for developments in student engagement? What should sparqs and the wider Scottish sector watch out for and explore if we are to remain, as you put it, “internationally respected?”

ENQA is currently leading a project called QA-FIT, ensuring that the European Standards and Guidelines remain fit for the future. This European Commission-funded work is in partnership with the European Students’ Union, the European Universities Association, EURASHE (representing applied HEIs such as polytechnics and applied sciences universities) and the European Quality Assurance Register. It is really important that Scotland contributes to the discussions as it has such a good story to tell. Whilst I expect the commitment to students being central in the system will remain, we have seen in recent times in the UK that we always have to be wary that there are some that would seek to diminish the contributions students can make.

Further afield, I am aware that, in some countries and regions where student engagement is not a cultural norm, there are early discussions about how the voices of students can be heard more effectively. In Europe, we can support those behind such discussions, but the tone we use could easily close the opportunities down if we expect a replication of what we do, and don’t understand the different starting points.


Thanks to Douglas for being an interviewee. To suggest a future subject for interview, please contact us.

This interview is part of a series of occasional interviews on our website with student engagement practitioners – both staff and students, and from within Scotland’s university and college sector and beyond. The interviews aim to capture the different perspectives that people have on student engagement in the quality of learning.

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