Assuring quality and standards in higher education

Anyone reading the Irish newspapers over the weekend will have seen immediately that the ‘grade inflation’ story, first covered in the Irish Times a week ago, continues to rumble on. And as it does so, the substance of the coverage has begun to shift from looking at the basic numbers to considering the implications and possible actions to be taken. One area of interest in all this has emerged, that of quality assurance. In Saturday’s Irish Times, in an extended piece by Education Editor Sean Flynn, there is the following comment:

‘There are close parallels here with the banking crisis. Essentially, the universities and the ITs regulate themselves. Five university presidents or their nominees sit on the IUQB board; four senior IT figures sit on the Hetac board. One IUQB member tells The Irish Times: “The whole thing is a cosy cartel. Each of us has our own agenda and we can pursue it without difficulty. Occasional concerns have been raised about grade inflation but there has been no serious debate, let alone any decent research work.”’

I would really like to know which IUQB board member delivered themselves of this comment, since it does not correspond at all with what has been going on at board meetings. The description of what goes on at the IUQB is totally inaccurate, and frankly rubbish. Nobody that I have encountered there comes in with an agenda; in fact if they did it might be a better experience, as there might then be a more proactive approach to the quality agenda. However, there is no cartel approach, and the external members ensure that this is so. Furthermore, at least in my presence, no board member has ever suggested that there should be debate or research on grade inflation.

The article continues by pointing out that the government intends to control quality and standards in a new unified agency. This is a reference to the merger between the Higher Education and Training Awards Council (HETAC), the Further Education and Training Awards Council (FETAC) and the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland (NQAI), and the acquisition by the merged body of the quality assurance functions of the Irish Universities Quality Board (IUQB).

Controlling quality assurance, in the sense of exercising a coordinating role of the kind currently undertaken by the IUQB to ensure that there is a consistency of approach, is something the new agency can and no doubt will do. Quality in this context is usually taken to mean a consistency and transparency in the educational process. Standards, on the other hand, are quite a different matter. Essentially standards are the product of the curriculum, which in turn determines the content of each course and the learning outcomes expected from it. In the university sector we do not have a national curriculum, and if it were even to be contemplated it would at a stroke end the idea of institutional autonomy, and even more significantly, of academic freedom. Nor is it clear to me that a process of bureaucratisation of higher education learning content and outcomes would raise Ireland’s reputation.

However, we may now need to respond to the ‘grade inflation’ story in a more proactive manner. Whatever I may believe myself – and I am of the view that the accusation of grade inflation identifies quite the wrong problem – it is clear that this view is not shared by many now commenting in public. The university sector may need to address the matter differently, and may need to consider independent reviews to show clearly what the true position is, and how any issues that may exist can be addressed. Waiting for the Minister to establish a national higher education curriculum is not the best possible tactic, I suspect. We need to undertake some speedy and serious confidence building.

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11 Comments on “Assuring quality and standards in higher education”

  1. Aoife Citizen Says:

    We need a lobby; a third-level education lobby describing a vision for the sector, the education sector specifically; we need a think tank commissioning reports, making recommendations, proposing grand plans. The IUA represents the Universities, what we need is an independent think tank, concentrating on education, specifically education.

    Research and innovation need support too, but that’s a separate discussion and in many ways a more divisive one as far as the sector is concerned. With education, we, the academy, seem to share an idea of its purpose, its form, its ideal operation, its benefit, its promise, but we seem to completely lack the platform to articulate it.

    We need a lobby, a think tank!

  2. Jilly Says:

    At the very least, I think that the 7 university presidents need to be able to issue (fairly) rapid joint statements in response to ideological attacks or unsubstantiated claims regarding higher education. One of the lessons of the ‘grade inflation’ saga last week was the way in which each individual college had to come out to defend itself. This lessens the impact – especially of sensationalist headlines which the press are not forced to retract.

    And where were the HEA last week, I’d like to know? Deafening silence from the body which could have issued a sectoral response.

  3. Vincent Says:

    You are a bit like the medics, you need to address any lack of confidence at the speed of light.
    It is the very same with the 2nd level, while there is a question on quality then what is being done is to fuck with peoples livelihoods. Which need to be addressed.
    On the issue with that fellow from Google, well he would wouldn’t he, if he can get what is the better or equal of UC-wherever at half the price. What is to be expected.
    On the other hand, idiots with nasty agenda and me also fools you will always have, so it might be little harm if you had info’ to hand that could fire broadsides from any number of directions.
    Not would it be any harm if you spoke with one well trained voice, -NUIM was not the best on the wireless the other day, Wildebeest after a visit by a pride sprung to mind- for you cannot help but to have noticed but you are throwing off a very large ping from the Radar.

  4. Ben Tonra Says:

    We have something akin to “independent reviews to show clearly what the true position is” they are called External Examiners’ reports. Universities might choose to publish these. Although usually Department or subject-based rather than programme based, university stakeholders would then see both the international calibre of those examining the system as well as the content of the reports themselves.

  5. maestro Says:

    dare I say IFUT (http://bit.ly/IFUT_web) ?

    At the moment IFUT is concerned with union related issues, however I see great potential for IFUT as a professional society – an organisation that could represent academics and researchers on issues such as these.

  6. kevin denny Says:

    One way of addressing employers’ concerns about the quality of a university’s education is the expanded transcript. My colleague Liam Delaney links to this below:
    http://gearybehaviourcenter.blogspot.com/2010/03/undergraduate-education-thread.html

    Personally, I am not convinced that external examiners are that effective at maintaining standards. They don’t have the time (& are not paid enough) to do a very thorough job. That’s not to say they don’t do their best: the one’s I have known are generally conscientious. But it is too much to expect to be able to guarantee, in any meaningful way, the quality of the program. Externs typically visit for one day a year and look at only a small number of final year papers. So by all means publish their reports but whether it will have much impact is doubtful.

  7. cormac Says:

    I wonder if the comment quoted by Sean Flynn is real – I have never found him reliable on 3rd level matters.

    Re grade inflation, I have yet to see commentators point out the obvious – that many irish universities were famously tight with their top grades, disadvantaging students internationally, so some inflation was probably necessary.
    That said, it is clear from the Tralee reoprt that it has certainly gone way too far both in universities and the IoT sector


    • Ah no, I have always found Sean Flynn to be reliable in his sources. He likes to start a good story, but that’s his job! Our job is to respond intelligently, and we haven’t done that…


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