Quality is in the eye of the beholder

To celebrate their 25th anniversary, the QAA has been exploring the concept of quality through a series of articles and events. Their latest event was a panel held on 15 June, which delved into the topic “quality is in the eye of the beholder”.

Quality is a multifaceted concept, as detailed in a recent article by QAA CEO Vicki Stott. Panel members Hillary Gyebi-Ababio (Vice President Higher Education at NUS) and Maureen McLaughlin (Academic Registrar and Director, Student, Library, and Academic Services at Northumbria University) likened quality to a kaleidoscope – it is made up of several interrelated and interdependent parts which make a beautiful picture when everything is working in harmony. But the effect can be quite jarring when even one part of the picture does not align.

To pin down the definition of the term, the panel focused on defining what quality is not. Quality does not equate to value for money – although the panel did recognise that it is important education does deliver value for the money and the time that students invest. However, defining quality as purely value for money constricts students into the role of solely consumers of education, which overlooks the roles students can play in engaging, developing, and co-creating their education alongside academic and support staff. As each student’s individual educational and support needs will be different, they will need to be provided with varying levels of support and therefore each student’s value for money will be different. Therefore, the panel argues that the quality of education cannot be reduced to or defined purely in monetary terms.

Quality also does not equate to outcomes. The panel made the point that quality should be seen in terms of the process and the outcomes in equal measure. As Professor John Sawkins (Deputy Principal (Learning and Teaching) at Heriot-Watt University) put it, quality should not be seen as a “five year sheep dip to rid the organisation of nasty bugs and ticks”. It should be an ongoing process that all teams and departments engage in on an ongoing basis to identify ways to be better and deliver higher quality for the benefit of students. To enable this, Professor Chris Millward (Professor of Practice in Education Policy at University of Birmingham) added that policy needs to move away from a reliance on market forces to drive quality. It is a culture of quality that works best at embedding the processes and systems required to achieve the intended outcomes.

Quality also does not equate to the assurance of quality. While quality assurance is important in measuring quality, it needs to delve into the reasons behind the measured level of quality. It needs to delve into causation, into the lessons that can be learned, and practices that can be applied across teams, departments, and institutions.

Ultimately, the panel agreed that quality is achieved when we put students first. Hillary Gyebi-Ababio exemplified quality as a creation of a learning environment that is conducive for student enrichment, development, and curiosity; setting students off on their journey to carve out the impact they want to make in the world and in their communities.

Key insights from QAA’s Access to HE annual conference

The QAA’s Access to HE annual conference took place virtually across two half days on 10 and 11 May. Across the two days, the conference touched on different facets of the new Skills and Post-16 Education Act and its implications for the Access to HE Diploma.

The primary aim of the Skills and Post-16 Education Act is to transform the skills and training landscape and level up opportunities across the country. Access to HE Diplomas closely align to this aim, providing opportunities for thousands of adults to re-engage with education at Level 3 and progress into higher education. Carys Willgoss from UCAS spoke at the conference about the partnership between UCAS and Health Education England to research “Who are the future nurses” and better understand the next generation of nurses. Key findings included: the role the pandemic has played in inspiring people to pursue nursing as a career, the rise in mature acceptances, and the outstanding fact that 99% of nursing applicants were extremely confident in their choice of career. Jim Bird, Lecturer and Senior Admissions Tutor within Health Sciences at University of Southampton, and Rebecca Jordan, Access to HE Lecturer at South and City College Birmingham, also highlighted in a panel discussion how Access to HE students bring valuable life experience that heightens their empathy and understanding in the health and social care sector. Former Access to HE students highlighted how the wide range of Diplomas free up adults to dream and choose different careers to pursue.

The Skills and Post-16 Education Act also looks to introduce more flexible delivery models, with modular delivery and funding. Ann Cotterill, Quality Enhancement Specialist at QAA Scotland, explored a subset of modular delivery: micro-credentials. While there is currently no unified definition of micro-credentials, Ann highlighted the common aspects: a small package of focused learning; stand-alone but able to combine with other micro-credentials; range of educational levels; varying in size; and certificated and/or awarded a digital badge. QAA will create a common framework through a Characteristics Statement on micro-credentials for the UK. The presentation raised questions about how micro-credentials could support Access to HE delivery, for example, with micro-credentials in wellbeing and resilience supporting student retention. Through the CAVA Promotions and Recruitment Working Group, CAVA is exploring creating an e-learning resource for students to support their transition onto their Diploma.

Another key aspect of the Skills and Post-16 Education Act is the aim to boost the quality of education and experience for students. To ensure the Access to HE Diploma remains sustainable, flexible, with robust quality assurance into the future, the QAA is undertaking a review of its AVA licensing agreement; the Access to HE Diploma specification; and the Diploma’s grade scheme between 2022 and 2024. A series of consultations on proposed changes will be run in the 2022-23 academic year; with the 2023-24 academic year designated as an ‘enabling’ year to allow providers and AVAs to prepare for full implementation in the 2024-25 academic year. Alongside this, case studies from University of Exeter and the Training, Education, and Consultancy Hub shared ways that quality and student experience could be enhanced through study skills. University of Exeter was working with Exeter College to part deliver, support, and provide enrichment activities around the Access to HE study skills unit, to enhance the student experience and further students’ academic skills which are so essential in supporting a smooth transition from FE to HE. The Training, Education, and Consultancy Hub are developing a new dedicated textbook to support Access to HE students with developing their study skills. The book is anticipated to be published in early 2024.

Finally, the Skills and Post-16 Education Act included academic integrity legislation, which has criminalised essay mills for all post-16 education including Access to HE Diplomas. It is important to note that the legislation criminalises essay mills providing services and marketing their services – however, it does not criminalise the students themselves in accessing the services (though that would be classed as academic misconduct at an educational provider). Students may need support to understand that essay mills are now criminal entities and that students would put themselves at risk when engaging with criminals. Essay mills have engaged in further criminal activities, such as blackmailing students after use; and using the essay service to collect personal data about students to enable identity theft. The QAA has created an Academic Integrity Charter for providers to take a proactive stance on academic integrity and create a common framework of positive principles. The Charter can provide a starting point for conversations with students, to help them understand the value of academic integrity and the dangers of academic misconduct.

The CAVA team would like to thank the QAA for an excellent conference.

QAA Access to HE Conference – What does “access” actually mean?

This year’s QAA Access to HE Diploma annual conference was opened with a powerful keynote speech from Shakira Martin (Head of Student Experience at Rose Bruford College; College of the Future Commissioner; Founder at The Class of 2020 #DigiProm; former NUS president; and former mature student to list but a few of her accomplishments). She challenged conference delegates with the definition of ‘access’: “the means or opportunity to approach or enter a place.”* and questioned the choice inherent within the definition.


Shakira shared that most educational institutions focus on providing opportunities for students from underrepresented student populations, but without putting in place additional support, many students do not have the means to engage in those opportunities. Additional former student speakers throughout the conference built on this by sharing the barriers they faced as adult learners: the financial cost of study; the difficulties involved in securing reliable care for dependents; the logistical challenges of travelling to a place of study; the lack of experience with higher education within their support networks and communities; fear of failure and/or embarrassment; and the lack of understanding around key academic skills required for successful educational outcomes. 


What does this mean for Access to HE Diplomas?

The Access to HE Diploma is a life changing qualification that provides tens of thousands of students the opportunity to access higher education across the country. In 2020-21, 23,865 adults entered higher education after completing an Access to HE Diploma.** The Diploma is designed to give students the means to academically succeed, with study skills embedded throughout the course. At CAVA, all of our Access to HE Diplomas contain a dedicated HE study skills unit so students can develop academic writing, reading, presenting, referencing, and critical thinking skills. There is also some provision to reduce financial barriers to studying: adults can apply for the Advanced Learner Loan for the course fees, with a guaranteed loan “write off” once students complete a higher education course. 


Shakira’s redefinition of ‘access’ does highlight areas that could be strengthened so that our Access to HE students have both the opportunity and means to engage in education. We invite our providers to reflect on the following aspects of providing the means:

  • Student bursaries: adults studying at Level Three can fall between the cracks of student support – providers often have excellent support in place for 16 to 19 years and for adult higher education students, however, Access to HE students do not fit either category. 
  • Support services: one of the attendees at the QAA conference suggested that providers could consider setting up a college creche for the children of students. This could address the needs of both students who need support with childcare, and provide valuable work experience opportunities for students undertaking childcare studies. 
  • Course delivery: the timing and location of provision can greatly impact students’ ability to engage in their courses. Working in collaboration with their students, many CAVA providers have adjusted their delivery hours to fit around school pick-up and drop-off times; evening and weekend delivery for those working full-time; and offering hybrid delivery to allow students to catch up on learning where they could not attend.  
  • Catch up services: Shakira shared that a key reason for students dropping out is the fear and embarrassment of falling behind after an unplanned break in learning. In our annual survey, our students often praise the dedication and support of their Access to HE teams who go above and beyond to keep them on track with their studies even when life gets in the way. 


At CAVA, we look to share good practice among our providers through our Retention Handbook and case studies, which can be found in the CAVA Members’ Area. On an annual basis, we reinvest our surplus funds into special projects to support our members’ student outcomes. For example, in 2020-21, we created our COVID-19 College Support Grants to support our providers’ initiatives to relieve the impact of the pandemic on student retention and achievement. The grants helped fund 725 additional teaching/pastoral hours, 87 digital devices, 14 WiFi dongles, specialist software, wellbeing support, and additional resources for our Access to HE students. This year we are piloting our CAVA Community Pitch which integrates entrepreneurship skills, community action, and environment sustainability into our HE study skills units. We will continue to reflect as an AVA and a membership to explore how we can collectively improve both the opportunity and means for our Access to HE students.


*Definition provided by Google’s English dictionary, in collaboration with Oxford Languages.

**Data source: QAA Key Statistics 2020-21 https://www.accesstohe.ac.uk/regulating-access/statistics

CAVA Conference 2021

On Friday 3 December we held our virtual CAVA conference, exploring the theme of ‘The Future of Access to HE’. The schedule was packed with keynote presentations from the QAA, EduFuturists, and Association of Colleges; alongside case study presentations from 6 CAVA Access to HE providers; a panel of former Access to HE students; and talks from our beloved CAVA Student Award winners. We were delighted to have 82 attendees from 39 FE colleges; HE institutions; and educational organisations. We would like to thank all of our fantastic speakers for their fascinating insights.

Our key takeaway from the conference is that the future of Access to HE Diplomas is bright.

In terms of the political and educational reform landscape, the Access to HE Diploma has been repeatedly recognised as a valuable qualification in widening participation and meeting local and national skills needs. The QAA is leading the charge to ensure the qualification remains relevant and a high quality option for adults through their ongoing review of the Diploma Specification and grade scheme.

From the EduFuturists, we received a glimpse into the future of learning. It is anticipated that in the next 10 years technological progress will match that of the past 100 years. It seems the future will involve more personalised and project-based learning, utilising digital assistance and extended reality to bring learning to life. There will be challenges and opportunities to move towards decentralisation.

From the Association of Colleges we heard about the increase in the number of students with mental ill health and the increasing complexity of students’ experiences. While it paints a concerning view for the future, it was inspiring to hear how colleges are already going above and beyond to support students with counselling and other in-house services. There are also a wide range of resources available which Association of Colleges, The Charlie Waller Trust, and other organisations have come together to help colleges with their thinking around supporting both students and staff.

The case study talks from our CAVA providers highlighted some excellent practice being implemented across the membership. Members are already engaging with digital tools to enhance their teaching, allowing learning to be more accessible for students who may struggle to attend in person. Virtual reality is being used to bring complex, abstract ideas to life, so that students can better engage. Alongside this technological engagement, it is clear from the case studies that non-digital resources, such as textbooks and libraries, still have an important role to play in building students’ knowledge and utilisation of reliable evidence. Personal support from teaching and pastoral tutors can make all the difference in keeping students engaged and achieving. What came across in all the talks was a willingness to be brave, experiment, learn from mistakes, and the importance of peer sharing and support.

Ultimately, the future is bright because we have fantastic students engaging in our courses. Both our student panelists and the CAVA Student Awards demonstrated the incredible dedication, perseverance, and commitment of our students. The passion of our academic teams shone through in each award winner, showing how putting the right support in place can enable and empower our students to achieve their aspirations.

Once again, the CAVA team would like to thank all of our speakers and all of our attendees for their engagement in the day. We hope to see you again in person in 2022!

CAVA Members can now access all of the conference recordings and resources in the Resources section of CAVA Members Area. Contact CAVA at website@cava.ac.uk if you have any problems accessing the CAVA Members Area.

CAVA Higher Education Fair – Recordings and Resources

Thank you to everyone who managed to join us for the CAVA Higher Education Fair, we had a fantastic time and hope that you all enjoyed the presentations and the opportunity to speak with student ambassadors. Below we have put together some recordings of the presentations for those who missed the Fair or those who want to rewatch.

Further Resources
  • Preparing for University slides
  • Disability and Wellbeing slides
  • Student Finance England slides
  • UCAS slides
  • Higher Education Fair 2021

    We’re excited to launch our first CAVA Higher Education Fair for CAVA Access to HE students!

    The Higher Education Fair will give students the opportunity to hear from and speak directly with representatives from UCAS, Student Finance England, universities, and former Access to HE students now studying at university. Some of the topics which will be covered will range from: course specific considerations, student support provisions, and financial advice. The Fair will prepare and support students in making thoughtful decisions about the future of their studies.

    The Higher Education Fair will take place over three days at the start of the new 2021-22 academic year, during the week beginning 4 October 2021.

    More information about each day can be found on the Hopin registration pages linked below.
    In order to attend these free events, you must register for each event using the links below:

  • Starting Your Application – Monday 4 October 13:00 – 14:30
  • Subject Specifics – Wednesday 6 October 13:00 – 15:00
  • Student Life – Friday 8 October 13:00 – 14:00

  • If you have any questions or need any help accessing your free tickets, please contact CAVA at website@cava.ac.uk.

    Happy International Literacy Day!

    Since 1967, International Literacy Day (ILD) celebrations have taken place annually around the world to remind the public of the importance of literacy as a matter of dignity and human rights. At CAVA we believe in the power of education and literacy to create a fairer and more sustainable society. The Access to HE Diploma helps people realise their potential. Literary skills are just one of the many skills which students will develop and grow through undergoing the an Access to HE Diploma.

    To celebrate International Literacy Day, below you can find a short testimonial and video interview from previous Access to HE Diploma student Simone Chalkley who was recently awarded the prestigious Snoo Wilson Prize for Scriptwriting. The CAVA team have also shared some of their favourite books in the spirit of the day.

    Simone Chalkley – Access to HE Diploma (Humanities) – Cambridge Regional College 2014-15

    Returning to the classroom after difficult experiences as a youngster was nerve-racking, but it quickly became apparent that times have changed and that as an adult learner my opinions and ideas were valid and acceptable. During my Access to HE Diploma, I gained a firm foundation in my chosen field of Humanities – English Literature, Sociology, and History – as well as acquiring strong academic skills of researching, essay writing, presentations, and revision and exam techniques. And it all happened in a comfortable environment, with encouraging lecturers that had patience and were genuinely enthused about their subject matters. This positive educational experience gave me a newfound confidence in my abilities to continue to pursue an academic path. I have since attained a BA in English Literature with Creative Writing and learned and mastered the new skill of scriptwriting, even going on to win an undergraduate scriptwriting award. I had already taken a non-traditional route to professionally train and establish myself as a proofreader and editor but now I have further expertise in the field of fiction across a range of media and feel justified in adding ‘writer’ to my credentials. The Access to HE Diploma was the start of this whole process.

    Want to hear more? Check out this video interview with Simone:

    CAVA Book Recommendations:

    Flóra Raffai

    Prelude to Foundation by Isaac Asimov

    Prelude to Foundation is my favourite book as it brings together adventure, hard science fiction, and sociology, in an attempt to improve the lives of millions in the galaxy. The story evolves into a whole series of seven books, which tie together with Asimov’s other Robot and Empire series. It inspired so much of subsequent science fiction and even technological advances in the real world.

    Jacky Kelly

    The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

    Picking your favourite book is a bit like picking your favourite child. From a final list of three (Handmaid’s Tale, I Capture the Castle, the Starless Sea), I have chosen ‘The Starless Sea’ by Erin Morgenstern. This is a fabulous read – five stars are not enough. The book pulls you into its pages. Books within books, stories within stories. A book for book lovers. You will want to savour every word.

    Scarlett Blacker

    The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

    My favourite book is The Picture of Dorian Gray: The Picture of Dorian Gray combines all the best bits of Oscar Wilde’s writing into one novel, every time I read it I find another thing to enjoy about it. Aswell as being one of my favourite books to read, it also brings back vivid memories of A Level English lessons and the joy of studying books.

    Emily Ross

    Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

    Great Expectations by Charles Dickens holds a dear place in my heart. Although it is not necessarily the book I have most enjoyed over the years (although it is excellent), I love it because it was the book that made me realise that I was a reader!
    I discovered the book aged 7yrs on my grandparents’ bookshelves and squirrelled it away to sit on their stair landing. Sitting under the little nose-height window on the stairs, I learnt from humble, hilarious Joe Gargery, oblivious Pip and uppity Estella that this was my thing, and a lifelong passion was born!

    Sam Whitaker

    Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

    The book I have chosen is Solaris by Stanislaw Lem because I remember reading it after not reading many fiction books for a long time and it blew me away and reignited my love for fiction. There are plenty of spooky moments for those who like darker stories like me and there are moments of really fascinating hard science fiction. Overall the book incapsulates many of the themes which I love in stories whilst challenging the reader to think more critically about what it means to be sentient. Definitely worth a read for any budding humanities students!

    Student guide on 2021-22 Access to HE arrangements

    We have developed a short guide for CAVA students to better understand the 2021-22 arrangements for Access to HE Diplomas. The guide contains an overview of:

    • the regulatory arrangements for the 2021-22 academic year
    • how your courses may be adapted
    • further guidance on student support
    • how Access to HE arrangements compare to A-levels

    You can download this guide by clicking on the image below:

    For further guidance, the QAA have also released a full guide for students on the arrangements. You can view the guide via this link. You can also find all the most up-to-date FAQ information for students via the QAA website.

    Learning bit by bit – Access to HE Diploma (Computing) Testimonials

    For many people it can be incredibly daunting going back into education and it can be even more of a challenge making those first steps to pursue a career in the ever evolving world of computing and technology. It can also be exceptionally rewarding and for these students – life changing.

    Amelia Moss-Cuddy – Access to HE Diploma (Computing) 2020-21 – City College Plymouth

    I have just finished my Access to HE Diploma in Computing at City College Plymouth. This course has given me a newfound confidence moving forward, and considering most of the course was online I’m extremely impressed by how the course was delivered. Even through a situation as scary and difficult as the pandemic, I’ve still learned valuable teachings and gained many skills.

    I’ve always struggled socially and felt talking to people was very difficult but enrolling on this course has significantly changed that, the teachers were extremely welcoming, positive, funny and excellent. I felt immediately at ease on this course thanks to the excellent teaching and it allowed me to gain better confidence when communicating with my classmates. Even though I’m quite an anxious person I have made many friends through the course and we all stay in touch through a social media group we set up for the class.

    When I was at school I struggled with bullying and this led me to leaving school only with a couple GCSE’s. I also ended up dropping out of a couple of colleges over the years because I was stuck doing courses I did not want to take due to the restrictions which came from my grades. When I found the Access to HE Diploma in Computing at City College Plymouth I didn’t realise just how much it would change my life. The course has literally changed my life, I’m now able to attend the University I’d like to go to and study a subject I’ve always wanted to. I’ve gained better social skills as well as confidence and I’ve proved to myself that I’m more than capable of studying computing. I will always be grateful for this opportunity and the awesome teaching, especially my teacher Chris who was a real inspiration.

    Justas Galminas – Access to HE Diploma (Computing) 2020-21 – City College Plymouth

    Enrolling on the Access to HE Diploma in Computing at City College Plymouth was the best decision I have ever made. It gave me the opportunity to pursue my passion for computer science. The course changed me as a person and taught me many valuable skills and principles that will aid me throughout my academic journey and life.
    The teachers are extremely experienced, highly educated and passionate about teaching. They really care about their students, help them achieve their goals, give great feedback and advice on education and life in general.

    The delivery of the course was well-structured, easy to grasp and gave a taste for many aspects of computer science including databases, programming, web development and many others.

    I thoroughly enjoyed studying at City College Plymouth and highly recommend studying an Access to HE Diploma!

    If you feel inspired to try something new or to pursue a future in computing – check out our courses page and see what’s available at your closest college, or leave your details in our contact form via our student page.

    Access to Higher Education Diploma 2020-21: Results, UCAS, Appeals and Feedback

    Congratulations class of 2020-21

    On behalf of everyone at CAVA we would like to congratulate all those who have completed their Access to Higher Education Diploma. CAVA will be issuing your certificates and transcripts to your colleges on 26 July, which will then be forwarded to you. CAVA will also share your final grades with UCAS to support your progression into higher education. We wish you the very best with your next steps. 


    Below you will find more information about how to share your feedback, how to appeal, the UCAS tariff, and how to stay in touch.



    CAVA strives to ensure that our Access to HE courses meet student needs, which is why we are seeking feedback from all those who have completed their course this year. When you receive your certificate and transcript, you will also receive a letter which will include a link to complete our student survey. Your input will inform our work with our colleges to improve the student experience. Everyone who completes the survey and leaves their contact details will be entered into a draw for a prize of £50.


    Appeal of grades

    When you receive your grades, if you believe that you have grounds for an appeal then please contact your course leader. They will support you in identifying the grounds for your appeal, gathering the relevant information and they can submit an appeals form to CAVA on your behalf. This will be considered by a CAVA appeals panel and your college will inform you of the outcome.


    The grounds for appeal about grades are restricted to:

    • evidence of administrative error in the assessment process
    • extenuating circumstances that, for good reason, could not be notified prior to the awards board.


    CAVA will hold four grade appeals boards as follows:

    • 20 July 2021
    • 9 August 2021
    • 23 August 2021
    • 1 September 2021

    UCAS Tariff

    There is a tariff calculator on the UCAS website to enable students to calculate any combination of Access to HE grades: https://www.ucas.com/ucas/tariff-calculator


    UCAS have a useful video which explains how the tariff works on their website: https://www.ucas.com/ucas/undergraduate/getting-started/entry-requirements/ucas-undergraduate-tariff-points


    The table below gives a few examples of grade combinations achievable on the Access to HE Diploma and the equivalent UCAS points.  The full table for all qualifications is available for download on the UCAS website.  The Access to HE table is on page 153. 



    Merit credits Distinction credits Tariff points A Level tariff point example
    45 0 0 48 EEE (or single A grade A-level)
    30 15 0 64 DDE (or two grade C A-levels)
    15 15 15 96 CCC
    0 45 0 96 CCC
    0 30 15 112 BBC
    0 15 30 128 ABB
    0 0 45 144 AAA


    Stay in touch

    We have a CAVA alumni group on LinkedIn <https://www.linkedin.com/groups/13884871/> where you can keep in touch with classmates and network with other CAVA Access to HE Diploma students. We really encourage you to use this space to share stories about your progression to higher education, and your career aspirations.