Universities have a lot to learn?

In an article in yesterday’s Sunday Independent, we were told that a report commissioned by the Higher Education Authority was ‘damning in its indictment of universities in the Irish Republic’ for failing major quality standards and expectations. The article also claims that the report ‘noted “sustained systematic shortcomings” where universities had unilaterally suspended quality assurance activities and ignored the IUQB [Irish Universities Quality Board]’.

It is probably the case that the author of this article got somewhat carried away, for while the report does indeed point to some issues that need to be addressed, the overall tone was far from ‘damning’. For a start, it needs to be stated that this report was commissioned by the HEA, but at the request of the IUQB itself, with the agreement of the universities. The expert group who conducted the review, in their findings, say at the outset that ‘the work done to date [by the IUQB] is impressive and has given strategic impetus to raising the awareness and activity levels in the universities in respect of quality assurance and improvement.’ The report does also refer to and highlight some shortcomings, some of them quite significant, but that is what a quality review is about. The response by the IUQB has beeen constructive and positive.

It is not my intention here to get into the details of this report and its recommendations – that is perhaps for another time. However, it is important that media coverage of such documents should be balanced and constructive, and should not seek out and highlight only the critical passages. This is important for a number of reasons (including the need for good journalism), but one of them is that quality reviews are most effective, and the follow-up most successful, if the emphasis is on constructive engagement and support rather than judgement and blame.

Here in DCU we have, we believe, a very good track record in quality assurance. All of the university, including my own office and my own role, have been quality reviewed by independent expert panels (with a majority external membership), and my senior management team meets every review panel and is involved in the follow up for every singly review. All the reports are published and are available to the general public. We have also persuaded the academic community that these reviews are not intended to damn anyone, but to support them and help them in bringing about and maintaining the highest levels of quality.

We all have more to learn, and there are always things we could do better. Even in the Sunday Independent, I suspect.

PS. Since I wrote this, the government has announced in the 2009 Budget documentation that the IUQB’s functions are to be transferred to a new government-run agency.

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2 Comments on “Universities have a lot to learn?”

  1. Iain MacLaren Says:

    Sadly, it looks like this type of article is part of a general “softening up” approach whereby the sector is knocked about in the public eye and held up as a legitimate target for “sweeping reforms” (ie budget cuts and increased bureaucratic control). At one level there is a sense of petty vindictiveness underlying some newspaper reports (and some political statements) that plays on the public image of universities as cosseted, with Professors living a life of idle disregard for those around them. A terrible cliché of course, but one that can really only be challenged by more proactive and intelligent campaigning by the universities themselves.

    For much of the time this year, general public sympathy was perhaps lost by the constant focus on fees and rather than this being seen as a statement that the sector is under-resourced, many simply saw university presidents demanding that ordinary families stump up the cash for sending their children onto a higher education.

    The other problem of the image of the academic life is one that needs to be seriously challenged insofar as the day-to-day work of many staff in universities is of long hours, large class sizes, hundreds of scripts to mark, limited promotion opportunity and constant pressure to undertake research, win grants and publish papers, making stress levels high and indeed, for some, making the very concept of ‘work-life balance’ sound very hollow indeed. Of course, however, not all staff are under the same pressures in all institutions, and the press can easily find counter-examples of extreme cases, in particular amongst those who may be very highly remunerated in comparison to a junior lecturer for example.

    The challenge for the universities is to be seen as an indispensable part of Irish society, strengthening links not just with industry, but wider civil society. Universities already play a huge cultural and civic role, but it’s perhaps not particularly widely appreciated or acknowledged. The focus on the knowledge economy is of course important, but it may give the impression that the sector is removed in some way from other vital aspects of life.

  2. Dan Sullivan Says:

    Odd that the article in this instance didn’t, as previous articles from the same contributor did, note that writer is attached to the NCI.

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