What is quality assurance in higher education?: Part Four…students must translate theory into practice

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Students in Africa University's Faculty of Agriculture and Natural Resources listen to a lecture by Walter Manyangarirwa. Students were on campus and in class during the university's board of directors meeting and the installation of the new vice chancellor. Photo by Vicki Brown, UMNS

TO understand the meaning of ‘quality’ as used in quality assurance today, it is necessary to refer briefly to the traditional concept of ‘academic standards’.
We begin by making reference to three dimensions of ‘standards’:
l Academic standards: Academic standards is used with reference to the ability of students to understand, acquire and produce knowledge to a level that satisfies the particular institution, with the institution being able to benchmark itself against the best of similar institutions in the international community.
A way of ensuring that the institution is maintaining internationally-acceptable standards is the use of external examiners with Senate as the body that has the overall authority for ensuring that acceptable standards are kept.
It is worth noting here that the measurement of standards is usually based on assignments and examinations without any evidence of the students’ ability to transfer knowledge from theory to practice – except in professional fields such as medicine, engineering, law and accounting.
l Distinctive standards: Standards have also been associated with the idea of something distinctive and elitist. This is used with reference to certain brand names such as Harvard, Yale, Oxford and Cambridge which are regarded as exceptionally good institutions with excellent standards.
l Standards of competence: This term is used with special reference to the ability of the graduates of an institution to meet the competence requirements of professional bodies such as the Medical and Dental Professions Council, the Engineering Society, the Law Society and similar bodies.
Something to note about the first two definitions of standards is that the student’s performance is usually determined on the basis of assignments and examinations without any assessment of his /her ability to transfer knowledge from theory to practice. Consequently, you can have a brilliant graduate who is thoroughly incompetent as an employee.
In the context of modern quality assurance, ‘quality’ is defined, not simply from the perspective of examinations and assignments, but in terms of a number of variables, of which the following are among the most important:
l Fitness for purpose: This is an important dimension which refers to the extent to which an institution produces graduates who meet its own objectives as well as the objectives and goals of society including those of similar institutions in the international community.
Is the institution satisfied that its products meet the requirements for which it was set up?
Do graduates from university ‘X’ compare favourably with graduates from similar institutions both nationally and internationally in terms of performance?
l Value for money: This is used with reference to the extent to which the programmes taught and the graduates who go through those programmes can be said to have satisfied the expectations of government and other sponsors as measured by their employability and performance in the workplace.
The ISO 9000 has traditionally defined quality in terms of a product that is being delivered to customers, with customer satisfaction as the measure of quality. (Lategan, p.84)
The value for money variable is essentially an external view of the quality of an institution’s products.
l Transformative development: The view here is that a primary function of higher education institutions is to develop students.
The student is seen as an unfinished product.
The expectation therefore is that through their programmes, universities should develop and transform these students so that by the time they come out of the institution, they have acquired the necessary skills, values, qualities and competencies that make them useful and productive members of society who are employable and can generate employment for themselves and others.
l Fitness of purpose: This refers to the appropriateness of the objectives of the institution: To what extent are these objectives relevant to the needs of the nation?
And to what extent can its mission, vision, objectives and programmes be said to be equivalent to those of the best of similar institutions in the international community of universities?
I call this the dual citizenship of the university.
It must, on the one hand, meet national needs and, on the other, measure up to accepted international norms.
With regard to national needs, fitness of purpose has a direct bearing on the issue of mandates as defined in, say, Zimbabwe, where some institutions have been given specific mandates by Government or by the responsible authority in the case of a private university.
If a university was set up to advance national development in, say, agriculture or technology, does it demonstrate in terms of its programmes, research and community service that its major focus is in that area?
Do its graduation statistics reflect that focus?
An institution which departs significantly from the mandate it was given faces the risk of failing to meet the requirements of its first citizenship.

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