What is quality assurance in higher education?: Part Five…graduates in developing countries fail to drive their economies

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GLOBALLY, education is now recognised as the new game changer that drives economic growth and social change.
The quality of graduates being produced in developing countries raises much concern as they have failed to drive their economies.
Zimbabwe has not been spared from this predicament.
This has raised the questions:
– What really constitutes quality?
– Who should define quality?
– What is it that is to be assured?
Quality in education is the means through which an institution can guarantee, with confidence and certainty, that the standards of its educational provision are being maintained.
The term ‘quality assurance’ in higher education institutions (HEIs) is used to denote the practices whereby academic standards, that is, level of academic achievement attained by graduates, are maintained and improved.
This definition of academic quality as equivalent to academic standards is consistent with emerging focus in higher education policies on student learning outcomes, the specific knowledge, skills and abilities that students achieve as a consequence of their engagement in particular education programmes. (Brennan and Shah, 2000)
Prisca Zwanikken and others (2013) cite a definition which refers to quality assurance as
“…policies, attitudes, actions and procedures necessary to ensure that quality is being maintained and enhanced.” (2)
Pobiega (2011) states that: “Quality assurance is a global machinery, working simultaneously on all levels of higher education — from the individual academic who has to actually provide the systems with information … to transnational organisations such as OECD and the building of a European Higher Education Area (EHEA).” (7)
Quality assurance typically involves the following processes:
– Institutional self-evaluation: Depending on the parameters defined by the quality assurance agency, this may entail institutional evaluation of its facilities, staffing, governance structures, teaching and academic programmes, research and scholarship.
– External review: This is an external validation of the institution’s quality assurance system which takes the form of a quality audit; the process of examining institutional procedures for assuring quality. This is usually conducted by the relevant quality assurance agency, such as the Zimbabwe Council for Higher Education (ZIMCHE) or the South African Council on Higher Education (CHE), with the involvement of peer reviewers.
– Accreditation has been defined as “…the result of a review of an education programme or institution following certain quality standards agreed on beforehand.” (ESIB 2003, 8)
Accreditation can take place at both institutional level and the level of individual programmes. It is a kind of recognition and certification of the fact that a programme or institution meets the set requirements.
The above can be described as ‘the methodology’ of quality assurance. In terms of the overall system, inclusive of methodology and structures, there are certain elements that can be identified as common to many countries that have embraced quality assurance.
For example, van Vught and Westerheijden (1993) found the following common features in France, the UK and the Netherlands:
– a national agency to co-ordinate and support quality assurance within institutions — an agency which is independent of government
– self-evaluation as the focus of the external quality assurance process
– external peer review to explore the self-evaluation with the HEI (normally by a site visit)
– public reports of these evaluation activities, and
– no direct relationship of the results of external quality assurance to the funding of higher education institutions.
We may hasten to add that there have been attempts in some countries to link quality assurance to funding. In 2006, for example, the Commonwealth Government of Australia introduced what was called Performance Based Funding for public institutions.
It was not the entire budget of institutions that was based on performance funding.
The fund was applied to learning and teaching.
The learning and teaching performance fund (LTPF) used various measures such as student retention, progression, course experience and graduate employment to assess quality and award those institutions that met the requirements. (Mahsood Shah et al 2010)
The purpose of quality assurance
The critical question is: What is the purpose of quality assurance?
Academic studies have been made to establish the purposes of quality assurance in different countries.
According to David Billing (2004) surveys have shown that the purposes of external quality assurance can be reduced to the following:
– improvement of quality
– publicly available information of information on quality assurance
– accreditation (legitimising of certification of students)
– public accountability — for standards achieved and for use of money, and
– to contribute to HE sector planning process.
Billing also quotes Van Damme (2000) citing the following variants as a common feature in quality assurance systems of different countries:
– Improving teaching and learning
– Public accountability, and
– Steering the HE systems in terms of resources and planning.
It may be noted that there is a certain conflict between quality assurance for improvement purposes and quality assurance for public accountability as well as for planning purposes.
The focus in the improvement element is internal with the emphasis on quality in the institution, whereas the other elements have an external focus — with a view to satisfying the needs of the Government and the quality assurance agency.
We need to consider the implications of this for southern African countries.
Where is our focus?
Is it on accountability, on planning or on improvement?
This brings us to the assessments that have been made on the successes and failures of the quality assurance enterprise.

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