SFC Review of Coherent Provision and Sustainability

In June 2021 the SFC published its recommendations for the future of Scotland’s college and university system - Phase 3 Report: Coherence and Sustainability: A Review of Tertiary Education and Research.  The review commenced in June 2020, when the Scottish Government called on the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) to undertake a review considering how best the SFC and the sector could fulfil its mission in securing coherent provision in post-16 education.  It had four main objectives:

  1. To consider how best to achieve coherence and sustainability in the delivery of further and higher education during the COVID-19 crisis, EU exit transition, and beyond, while maintaining and enhancing quality.
  2. To ensure the sectors can address the outcomes we need to achieve in Scotland.
  3. To propose changes needed to SFC’s funding, operations, and accountability frameworks in order to respond effectively to new challenges and opportunities.
  4. To provide advice, where appropriate, to Scottish Ministers on relevant changes to policy, funding and accountability frameworks for tertiary education and research in Scotland.

There were three phases to the review: phase one was from June to October 2020, phase two from November 2020 until February 2021, and phase three ran until June 2021. These phases involved the following activity:

  • Phase One - Initial consultation with whole sector to shape and influence review priorities, including call for evidence and roundtable discussion.
  • Phase Two - Further, more detailed, consultation around key themes from Phase one.
  • Phase Three - Develop detailed delivery and implementation plans.

Throughout the review, sparqs worked to support student engagement in it, including sessions at our summer training events ‘That’s Quality!’ and our respective network meetings for student officers and students’ association staff, NEON and SESN. These sessions provided context and background to the review and built the capacity of officers to ensure they had a meaningful role to play as the review developed. Through these activities the SFC was able to hear directly from students and the final report has key additions that reflect this engagement.

The report outlines a wealth of activity that will take place throughout 2021-22 academic year and beyond. Continuing to facilitate student engagement with these outcomes will remain a focus of sparqs' work over the coming year.

In August 2020, SFC put out a call for evidence across the sector, inviting institutions, associations and agencies, as well as other relevant stakeholders, to respond, highlighting what they thought the review should explore further. Over 100 responses were submitted, which helped inform the phase one report. sparqs submitted to the call for evidence and you can read our response, as well as NUS Scotland’s.

We were also members of the SFC’s Student Engagement Advisory Group, established in November 2020 to support the SFC around ongoing tools and mechanisms for student engagement and in ensuring that students can actively contribute to, and influence, the review as it progresses.

On 20th October 2020, the SFC published their Phase One Report of the Review, ‘Coherence and Sustainability: A review of Scotland’s Colleges and Universities Phase One Report: Insights to Develop Further.’ Other supporting documentation can be found on the SFC website.

The report states that 2020-22 will be regarded as “Emergency Years” and the SFC plans to reduce “unnecessary bureaucracy”, focusing on absolute priorities to ensure continued compliance with legislative requirements, to focus on the public health emergency and front-line delivery of student education and training, research and innovation.

The report highlighted ten key themes to be explored further in phase two of the review, which formed the first in our series of sparqs’ briefing notes to help support student engagement in the review. We published our first briefing note for officers in December 2020, helping them to understand the themes and suggesting ways in which to explore how officers could support their own and their fellow students’ engagement. To complement this, in February 2021 we produced a briefing note for institutional staff, offering suggestions on how to include students in the review process. In March 2021 we published a further briefing for officers exploring how students could engage in the review as we moved into the third and final stage. The briefing note suggested questions to ask students around a few of the workstreams, enabling a better understand of how students felt about the different themes.

In March 2021, the SFC published a brief report providing a progress update on activity since the publication of the Phase One report, with a particular focus on addressing the immediate challenges presented by COVID-19 and on their developing thinking across the themes identified through the call for evidence.

During the third and final stage, the SFC created three reference groups:

  • Accountability - To input into a new approach to accountability, providing an overarching holistic framework, which will support and drive all aspects of SFCs activity.
  • Funding Model - To input into new funding approaches. The principles proposed are intended to be long term (10-15 years), recognising that many will present challenges and significant remodelling in order to deliver.
  • Research & Innovation - To input to future research and innovation policy direction.

NUS and sparqs supported a team of students to participate in these groups alongside a range of stakeholders from across the sector and other parts of Scottish business and civil society.

Current Quality Arrangements - 2022-2024

For academic year 2022-23 and 2023-24 QAA and Education Scotland are carrying out separate quality arrangements, respectively in universities and colleges, in preparation for the sector’s move to a joint approach to quality.  In September 2022, SFC published guidance to colleges and universities on quality for AY 2022-23 and AY 2023-24, setting out the quality arrangements for these periods.  sparqs has prepared a briefing for colleges and a briefing for universities to provide support to institutions during the period 2022 to 2024. For academic year 2023-24, there is some additional guidance for colleges, which is summarised in a new briefing. 

Tertiary Enhancement Topic

One of the recommendations of the SFC review consisted of a move to a tertiary approach to quality, i.e. joint national quality arrangements in colleges and universities. This move requires closer collaboration between sector agencies involved in delivering quality assurance and enhancement activities across Scottish institutions.

College and university sectors already undertake a variety of improvement and enhancement activities, both within institutions and at a sector-wide level. However, a joint approach between college and university could target specific common areas, and this collaboration is an opportunity to contribute to improving the tertiary education sector. Therefore, the SFC proposed the introduction of a Tertiary Enhancement Topic and asked its quality agency partners to lead on this new activity during 2022-23 and 2023-24.

In light of a closer collaboration between sectors, the SFC met with Education Scotland, QAA Scotland, College Development Network and sparqs in May 2022 to discuss themes from a quality review activity carried out in 2021-22.

The group identified potential areas of commonality within these themes, and the following topic was selected as the enhancement topic:

‘The future of learning and teaching: defining and delivering an effective and inclusive digital/blended offering.’

The context included links between aspects of digital learning and student outcomes, retention and attainment. The topic was developed in partnership with students. In November 2022 sparqs published a briefing on the Tertiary Enhancement Topic to support students’ associations and students engagement with the project and how they can contribute to the topic via our staff and officer networks. 

The Future of Learning and Teaching: Defining and delivering an effective and inclusive digital/blended offering was published at the end of February 2024 and is available on the SFC website, along with an accompanying summary report.  Focusing on first hand student experience, the report looks at what students want from blended learning and what approaches lead to the best outcomes. It aims to help Scotland’s colleges and universities better understand the opportunities and the challenges presented by new technology.

The next steps will include a series of staff development workshops and the development of an online hub containing resources for staff and students.

While the online hub is still under development, sparqs has already published an online and blended learning reflective questions resource, developed as part of the Tertiary Enhancement Topic project.  Based on the recently re-designed Student Learning Experience model, it consists of a set of reflective questions focusing on aspects of online and blended learning and how the learning experience may differ depending on the mode of course delivery. The resource can be used to start conversations with students, enabling students and staff to work together to identify priorities to enhance the quality of learning.


Further information

For further details, visit the SFC Review webpage. If you would like to discuss any of this further, please contact Megan Brown

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