Posted tagged ‘quality improvement’

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.

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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