Evaluating quality assurance
Last week the European Commission published a Report on progress in quality assurance in higher education. It is worth quoting the opening paragraph of the report in full, as it sets out the case for quality assurance systems.
Quality assurance in higher education is at the heart of efforts to build a coherent, compatible and attractive European Higher Education Area (EHEA), in line with the objectives of the pan-European Bologna Process. Over the past decade, there has been growing interest, in Europe and worldwide, in quality assurance in higher education. With globalisation, economic integration and increased academic and professional mobility, there is a growing need for the recognition of qualifications outside the country which awards them. The “borderless” delivery of higher education has made cross-border quality assurance increasingly important. The emergence of so-called “degree mills” (fake universities selling fake “degrees” on the internet) makes it vital to distinguish legitimate education undertaken abroad from spurious qualifications. Quality assurance helps to make higher education transparent and trustworthy for European citizens and employers as well as for students and scholars from other continents.
It would be hard to argue with any of that. However, the report then focuses to quite an extent on the establishment and development of quality assurance agencies in the EU and their role in securing quality assurance. In the conclusions the report suggests that some rationalisation of agencies might be called for, and that the structure of agencies should perhaps more of a European dimension.
The report is valuable in many respects, but it follows the pattern of many quality assurance initiatives in that it concentrates on institutional arrangements rather than the more important question of what it is that these institutions are actually supposed to protect or assure or enhance. As I have noted before in this blog, quality understood as process is not always helpful, in that the main output of such an approach is often bureaucratisation. Even at a national level we have a pretty incomplete view of what constitutes quality, beyond a desire for clear evaluation processes. At an EU level such an understanding is still more remote. Right now it seems to me that we have never really addressed the question of whether a decade or more of quality assurance processes has really improved the actual quality of higher education, however understood. If we don’t know the answer to that, then there must be something wrong with the system we have adopted
Maybe the EU could play a useful role in stimulating a debate on what we want quality assurance systems to deliver in substantive terms, before spending more time fine-tuning the institutional elements. And within Ireland, and in the context of the proposed establishment of a new agency for higher education quality assurance, we should also pause to address this. I am strongly of the view that educational content is for institutions themselves to determine, but any quality assurance system that assesses this content should have a clear and comprehensible remit that is clear on the meaning of quality, and not just the procedures to apply to quality assurance. And we should develop a consensus that more paperwork and more complex processes is not necessarily the same as, or even conducive to, higher quality.Explore posts in the same categories: higher education comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.