Posted tagged ‘Irish Universities Quality Board’

Irish higher education: the new quality and standards legislation

August 5, 2011

The Irish government has now introduced the long-awaited legislation on educational quality and standards. The Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) Bill 2011, which has the purpose of amalgamating a number of public agencies and taking over the functions of the Irish Universities Quality Board, has now been published.

The original impetus for this legislation, signalled by the last Fianna Fáil-led government, was a budgetary one, and was part of the decision to rationalise the public service agency landscape. In this particular instance the idea was that all those agencies dealing with quality and standards in post-secondary education should be brought under one umbrella. This intention was first announced in 2008, so the implementation has not proceeded at what one might call a good pace. However, the Fine Gael/Labour coalition has continued with the plan, though one original intention – to dissolve that National University of Ireland – was dropped. So we are now to have a new agency, to be called the Qualifications and Quality Assurance Authority of Ireland (QQAAI, perhaps not the finest acronym one might wish for). As an aside, this continues the practice in Ireland of naming such agencies an ‘Authority’, which suggests a particular, and maybe rather outdated, directive approach to public service.

One concern that might have existed about the proposed legislative framework was that by mixing the quality assurance process of the university sector with quality and standards in other educational bodies, the autonomy of the university system and its particular ethos and mission might be compromised. The Bill may reassure in that respect, at least in so far as there is special provision throughout  for what are described as ‘previously established universities’. These will continue to operate their own quality assurance processes, subject however to obligations of consultation with and information provided to the new Authority (section 28).

So are there still points of concern? Possibly. One would be that the system will be run by an agency which will not primarily be concerned with universities, and which may either not have the resources to focus on them sufficiently, or may find it easier to apply assumptions more appropriate to non-university bodies. The latter risk may be augmented by the uncertainty as to what will happen to the existing staff of the IUQB, which is not technically being merged into the new body. Another concern is that the new Authority, under the proposed statutory provisions, may possibly be under pressure to operate in a rather bureaucratic way.

The proof of this particular pudding will certainly be in the eating. It will be important to ascertain how the QQAAI will work in practice. One promising aspect at least is that its chief executive will be Dr Padraig Walsh, formerly of DCU and most recently the chief executive of the IUQB. His influence on the culture of the new body may ensure that it operates in a way that respects university autonomy and encourages a positive approach to quality assurance and enhancement.

Measuring higher education quality

August 31, 2010

Ever since the quality of higher education started to become a matter of concern in society, people have been struggling with the idea of how, if at all, quality could be measured. There has tended to be an assumption that quality assurance could only be real if there were metrics involved, because without them there would be no sense of objectivity, and furthermore there could be no meaningful targets for the achievement of quality. However, the metrics have tended to focus strongly on inputs (the student-to-faculty ratio being a typical example), not least because outputs (principally degree results) have often been questioned in terms of their integrity.

Of course it is not just the quality assurance process that comes up against this, it arises also when various bodies or media attempt to put together league tables (which, to carry weight, have to be based on an assumption of comparable quality). This ambivalence of all this has recently been illustrated by the US journal Chronicle of Higher Education, showing the really wildly different criteria that are used in various rankings.

But in the end rankings are indicative rather than definitive. However, formal quality assurance processes have to convey a sense of confidence in the objectivity of their use of metrics or other information. Can this be done?

The Irish university sector has fared better than most, because the quality processes of the Irish Universities Quality Board have taken these issues into account and have used a negotiated framework aimed at supporting improvement rather than condemning failure. This gain could be easily lost. It must be hoped that the new framework of the proposed unified agency will work constructively with what has been achieved to date. The important thing about higher education quality is not that we measure it, but that we continually enhance it.

Large classes, quality concerns

March 22, 2010

The Irish Universities Quality Board (which has been the subject of occasional discussion on this site) last week published the institutional quality review of National University of Ireland Maynooth (NUIM). The review was an overwhelmingly favourable one, and the panel had many positive things to say about the university. But it did have a concern about the growing class sizes, in some subject areas in particular. This is how the issue is addressed in the report:

‘The student numbers at NUI Maynooth have grown rapidly in recent years, resulting in an unfavourable lecturer-student ratio and extremely large student cohorts, especially in first year, in some disciplines (for example, Geography and English). This poses extra challenges in the delivery of effective pedagogy and does not allow personal tutoring of students. The University is clearly aware of this problem and has been addressing it in various ways, such as training lecturers to use new equipment which facilitates teaching in large classes, and using postgraduate students as teaching assistants. While acknowledging the value of the measures taken to date, the Team encourages the University to continue to explore more creative and innovative approaches to the problem of large classes. Much can be learned from the extensive literature that already exists on this subject. Any delays in giving the issue urgent attention risks damaging the student experience at NUIM and, in the end, may be detrimental to the University’s reputation.’

Clearly this is an issue which we are all having to face. Not only is the state funding for universities being reduced, the institutions are also being instructed to reduce staff numbers by 6 per cent over two years; and at the same time student demand for places is up, and universities are being pressed to take on larger numbers.

It is clear that this combination of policies and pressures cannot go on without creating a major quality issue. The whole concept of higher education in this country has been built around teaching students in manageable classes and, regularly, in small groups. Neither the resources nor the staff now exist to allow us to do this effectively. New equipment and technology, or the use of postgraduates to do some teaching, can no doubt make a contribution, but none of that can solve the overall problem.

It seems to me that either Irish universities will have to reduce student numbers decisively, or else accept (and point out to the government) that small group teaching is no longer sustainable. Of course the third option would be to have a new concordat between the universities and the government, under which a financial strategy is agreed – involving state funding that is capable of supporting programmes of study with teaching methods that maximise quality. Unfortunately I don’t think this is available, and so we remain on a path to much larger classes that could, in the end, destroy the international reputation of Irish higher education.

‘Grade inflation’ and the Irish Universities Quality Board

March 15, 2010

Yesterday’s Sunday Business Post carried an interview with Padraig Walsh, the chief executive of the Irish Universities Quality Board (IUQB). Over the past fortnight when the ‘grade inflation’ story was doing the rounds, some commentators picked on the IUQB and wondered why a body with a remit to protect quality did not address this alleged decline in standards. In the interview Padraig Walsh makes the point that the IUQB is not a regulatory body and cannot compel the universities to adjust their marking systems.

There may be people who will respond to that by asking what the purpose of the IUQB is if it cannot restrain universities when they are compromising standards. The answer is that there is an important difference between quality and standards: quality assurance is about checking whether decision-making processes are transparent and consistent, whereas standards relate to the substance of the curriculum and its appropriateness. Under law the latter is a matter for each university; changing that would require the state (or some other body designated for this) to implement a centralised curriculum for the entire sector, a move that would be totally incompatible not just with university autonomy but also with international best practice.

Under plans announced some time ago by the government, the IUQB’s functions in relation to quality assurance are to be transferred to a new regulatory agency that will be in charge of quality assurance for the entire post-secondary education sector. There is a risk, I believe, that there will be expectations that this new body will be able to compel individual institutions to revise or change their standards. If this were to happen, the implications will be far more damaging to the reputation of Irish higher education than any perceived grade inflation.

It is worth saying that the IUQB, contrary to the impression given by some commentators, has played an enormously important role in addressing quality issues. Across the university sector it is now accepted without argument that institutions owe a duty to the public to demonstrate that they use methods and apply decisions in a consistent and fair manner, and that publishing quality reviews so that everyone can consult them is in the interests of transparency. These are major advances.

On the other hand, the universities themselves need to explain to the wider public much more convincingly than they have done how they determine standards and how they ensure that these are in line with international benchmarks. Simply declaring that there is no problem will not be sufficiently convincing. There is more work to be done.

Assuring quality and standards in higher education

March 8, 2010

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.

Universities have a lot to learn?

October 14, 2008

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.

Quality in the universities

October 8, 2008

One of the key developments in the higher education sector over the past two decades is the arrival of what is sometimes called the ‘quality movement’. In a nutshell, the various stakeholders of the universities have been less and less willing to take on trust that the teaching and research in these institutions is of high quality and have sought ways in which this could be independently verified.

In the UK this led to the quality assessment process overseen by the Quality Assurance Agency (the QAA), and the Research Assessment Exercise. It has been argued that these two mechanisms may have, at least initially, had a very doubtful impact on quality, though their quantitative impact may have been clearer (not to mention the bureaucratic impact). On the other hand, there can be little doubt that these processes made both the institutions and their staff acutely aware of the need to demonstrate the value of delivery of the universities’ core mission.

In Ireland the universities established the Irish Universities Quality Board, to which the governing authorities of all the institutions have ceded certain tasks for maintaining a framework of quality assurance and improvement. It has had an important role in developing and sustaining a framework of regular and public reports for each university and for academic units and programmes.

I propose to look again in a future post at the success of the Irish model, but it seems to me that a question we must ask initially is the key one: what actually constitutes ‘quality’ in a university, and if you want to measure it, what do you measure and how? These questions appear simple enough, but are in fact extremely complex. The British experience may be instructive, as a good deal of what was done initially to introduce quality assurance mechanisms may have been less than ideal; in Ireland we have an opportunity to learn from that.

So in my next post on this blog, I propose to attempt an answer to the question of what constitutes quality. Then after that, I shall look briefly at how our initiative with the IUQB has worked.

In the meantime, I would welcome comments.


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