Posted tagged ‘quality’

Conceptualising the new higher education: a blast from the right

June 6, 2011

The future of higher education will probably belong to those who can create a coherent strategic concept and win support from key education stakeholders. One such attempt that has generated a fair amount of publicity in the United States is a document by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a policy research institute that declares its mission to be ‘to promote and defend liberty, personal responsibility, and free enterprise in Texas and the nation.’ This document sets out ‘seven solutions’ to current higher education issues, and these are:

  • measure teaching efficiency and effectiveness;
  • publicly recognize and reward extraordinary teachers;
  • split research and teaching budgets to encourage excellence in both;
  • require evidence of teaching skill for tenure;
  • use “results-based” contracts with students to measure quality;
  • put state funding directly in the hands of students;
  • create results-based accrediting alternatives.

This is a set of prescriptions coming from a right-leaning American institute, but some of its elements enjoy a wider currency than that. They are based on the view that universities need to demonstrate greater accountability for public (and presumably, private) money. In addition the Texas document has elements of a new competitive order (for example competing accreditation systems) that would be very far from our own assumptions about higher education; but let us leave these aside for a moment.

Universities instinctively feel more comfortable with the idea that they are given an education and scholarship mission, are given money to support this, and are left to work out how the outputs should be measured and presented. The new orthodoxy is that this is not sufficient and that far greater transparency is needed. Generally universities have reacted to these pressures, but have not been sufficiently pro-active in presenting their own models of accountability. But such models should do what most others (including the Texas Public Policy Foundation) have not done, that is, to present accountability as part of the larger package of pedagogy and excellence in scholarship. It is time for the international university community to put forward models of higher education that show learning and scholarship to be the focus of future planning, and how this can be implemented effectively and efficiently and transparently.

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A question of standards

March 5, 2009

One of my more recent posts – on the issue of grade inflation at universities – prompted quite a lively discussion. The argument, if I can call it that, was about whether a trend of higher grades implied a lowering of standards. My own view was that there was no such necessary implication, and that at least some of the evidence pointed the other way; others disagreed.

Without wanting to continue that particular discussion in a new post, I do however want to raise an important issue: if we say that standards have either gone up or down, how can we tell? And what, moreover, do we mean when we talk about ‘standards’? Can these be identified at all in any reliable way? Are the something objective that can be determined scientifically, or are they subjective?

These are important questions, because ultimately our standards determine the quality of what we do. There has been a tendency to measure quality by assessing processes and methodologies, but ultimately that is unsatisfactory. Our quality should be determined by substance, not process. But what substance? As the debate here has shown, examination results and grades alone cannot be sufficient. But if that is not what we would use, what else is there?

I am not in this post going to suggest an answer, though I may do so in a later one. My main purpose in raising this issue here is to see whether the readers here have any views on this. It is probably one of the most important issues the university sector needs to address right now, and some feedback (particularly from current or former students) would be extremely valuable.

What is quality in higher education?

October 9, 2008

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

‘Academic quality is a way of describing how well the learning opportunities available to students help them to achieve their award. It is about making sure that appropriate and effective teaching, support, assessment and learning opportunities are provided for them.’

But is that actually a definition of anything? Is quality a ‘way of describing’ 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.