Posted tagged ‘QAA’

Quality in higher education

October 18, 2011

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 the term ‘quality’ is not defined there. On its website, the British Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) does purport to define ‘academic quality’, thus:

‘A comprehensive term referring to how, and how well, institutions manage teaching and learning opportunities to help students progress and succeed.’

But is that actually a definition of 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.

Gathering or distributing the university?

December 26, 2010

Here’s a topic, perhaps, to distract you as you recover from your Christmas dinner.

This last week the UK’s Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) issued a recommendation to the Privy Council (to whom the task of deciding the matter is entrusted) that the UHI Millennium Institute should be awarded university status. In many ways UHI (which stands for ‘University of the Highlands and Island’) is a project rather than an institution, consisting of a partnership of a significant number of colleges and institutes spread around the West and North of Scotland. The extent of the distribution of its elements is visible in this map on UHI’s website. If the traditional model of a university is a single self-contained campus in one location, this is completely the opposite. If you thought that the existing model of the Dublin Institute of Technology was excessively distributed, think again.

Of course, in the case of DIT the Grangegorman project is based precisely on the assumption that a single location creates a more cohesive and vibrant educational institution. Elsewhere also, multi-campus universities (for example, De Montfort in England) have been consolidating their locations in order to have a single campus.

So what, if anything, should be the principle underlying all this? Is there a desirable model? The answer to that depends of course on how we view the future of higher education, and how we see university programmes developing. It is also connected with questions of economic development and regeneration, as towns and communities often argue that a university in their midst is necessary to attract investment and skills.

There doesn’t of course have to be ‘an answer’ to this – there can be several models and diversity may be desirable. But if there isn’t an answer, there needs to be an idea or a basis for assessment of what is right in each case. We need to have a sense of the economics of distributed universities, and of their capacity to connect subject areas with each other across distances. And we also need to have a proper view on what is reasonable in terms of a higher education presence in regional communities, and whether people from these communities can be offered programmes that don’t force them to leave (with the risk that they won’t return). We need to have a proper view of the geography of higher education.

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.