What is quality in higher education?

It would probably not be hard to get a consensus around the proposition that universities should aim for high quality in both their teaching and their research. But it is much harder to identify what quality actually is, how it can be recognised and how it can be measured. This is illustrated by the fact that some of the key policy documents on quality assurance for universities go into great detail about the process by which quality should be assured without ever once saying what actually constitutes ‘quality’. For example, the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area issued by the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education in 2005 makes no attempt to define, describe or identify quality criteria. The Irish Universities Quality Board (IUQB) on its website has a page of ‘useful definitions in quality assurance‘, but oddly the term ‘quality’ is not defined there. On its website, the British Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) does purport to define ‘quality’, thus:

‘Academic quality is a way of describing how well the learning opportunities available to students help them to achieve their award. It is about making sure that appropriate and effective teaching, support, assessment and learning opportunities are provided for them.’

But is that actually a definition of anything? Is quality a ‘way of describing’ anything?

It seems strange that a whole industry dedicated to monitoring and improving quality seems to have no advice to offer as to what ‘quality’ actually is. I once sat next to a senior academic at a dinner; he had been involved in the QAA’s quality assurance process for ten years. When I asked him what ‘quality’ meant, he chided me for asking an ‘irrelevant’ question. He suggested that the institutions themselves could determine what constituted quality, and the task for people like him was to see whether they lived up to their aims. That seems sensible at one level, except that if it were that simple then institutions could guarantee superb quality simply by setting themselves very modest ambitions, and then meeting or exceeding them.

However, because nobody has anything much to say as to what quality is, the temptation is to get out of this dilemma by focusing entirely on process: we cannot say whether what you teach is good quality, but we can ask whether you have followed the 20 prescribed steps when you developed the programme and are counting the answers students have given in the feedback questionnaires. And on the whole, that is how a fair amount of quality assurance has been conducted.

The problem with this is that if your excellence is – publicly – going to be measured on the basis of how satisfied people are with your processes, then you had better have comprehensive processes and stringent monitoring; and if that’s your concept of quality, then you had better steer clear of innovation, because innovation (like entrepreneurship) is risky and may sometimes fail or not enthuse the users at first. It is much safer to stay with your existing offerings and just make sure that all the paperwork is in good order.

We have therefore come to accept that quality assurance is about process, whereas it should be obvious that quality is about content and intellectual innovation. If we are serious about having a high quality higher education system, then we have to start asking questions about content, avoiding the risk of suggesting that there is one standard way of measuring this.

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2 Comments on “What is quality in higher education?”

  1. Wendymr Says:

    I’ll be very interested in your comments, when they come, on quality assurance in the Irish university system – and I hope that whatever mechanism in place isn’t going to repeat the errors of the QAA. As you’d expect, I have some experience with ‘quality’ as it is determined by the QAA; I worked at Keele through two QAA inspections of my department. Leaving aside the inspectors themselves (and I remember one colleague resenting being lectured to by someone who, as he said rather condescendingly, wouldn’t even have got a job in the department), the process seemed to be far more about examining the minutest detail of written information than actually considering the purpose, scope and outcome of learning and teaching. I shudder to think of the number of trees destroyed by the documents we were required to produce, in multiple copies; I think we had something like fifty boxes of documents for one of the audits. And when, in the second inspection, my own department was criticised and marked down one grade for something that was completely beyond either our control or the university’s control, that destroyed any credibility the process might have had.

    There’s also the prior existence of the external examiner system, something the QAA inspection really didn’t seem all that interested in. Maybe there’s an element of cronyism in the external examiner system, though my own observations of it over 16 years suggests otherwise; for whatever reason (and one could be cynical or ascribe it higher motives) external examiners do appear to hold the programmes of study for which they are responsible to a very high standard. As a former programme director, I had frequent contact with our external examiners – three during my tenure – and found them all to be rigorous, exacting and never slow to recommend changes where they believed them necessary. To an outsider, it may appear to be a cosy system of self-regulation, but in practice it doesn’t tend to be all that cosy – and generally it works well.

  2. Michael Scott Says:

    I suggest the that IUQB be closed down, and those academics involved in it be put back in front of classes teaching people. There’s a 3% saving right there! (I would love to know how many hits the IUQB web site gets, and who if anyone reads their reports).

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