What is quality assurance in higher education?: Part Six…as modern quality assurance proves success

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IT is easy to assume that the modern quality assurance enterprise has been a great success, especially in the promotion of quality in the higher education sector.
There is definitely much to support that view.
The higher education systems of many countries have not been significantly negatively affected by factors such as massification and the dwindling of resources.
This is because of the quality assurance measures that have been taken to minimise the negative effects of such developments.
In addition, there are regions where cross-border harmonisation of education has brought about mutual recognition of qualifications and facilitated the easy movements of students from one country to another and from one institution to another.
Before I proceed with an explanation of the successes of quality assurance, let me briefly refer to some of the failures of the enterprise.
Commentators and analysts of quality assurance systems in Europe and other regions have noted the following negative aspects of quality assurance, among others:
l Frazer (1997) discovered that “…the meaning of self-valuation is becoming distorted by the pressure of accountability, and is now interpreted by some to mean ‘presentation of self to external body’ and in the best possible light, rather than self-evaluation.”
l In line with the above, Pobiega (2011) has noted that the institutions of higher education, especially in the UK, “…have become very good at filling out forms and presenting their quality assurance systems to external reviewers.”(11-12)
In this way, quality assurance becomes a mere formality for purposes of satisfying the requirements of the authorities without achieving the primary function of improving teaching, learning and research.
l A related issue is conflict between accountability and enhancement (Kushimoto 2009 and Harvey and Williams 2010). The point here is that external reviews may focus on accountability at the expense of internal improvement in quality. This may result from a lack of trust between external agencies and institutions.
l Similarly, Filippakou (2011) has argued that the debate on quality in higher education has been dominated by a discourse of control, in the sense that the talk is about accountability, assessment and audits. A way of clarifying this is that governments and quality assurance agencies become the subjects or bosses while academic institutions become objects or even victims. Thus, quality assurance may turn into a system of state control of higher education. There is a sense in which quality assurance can be viewed as a policy of state regulation whose effect is to assault the academic freedom and autonomy of institutions and to signal loss of trust in the academic community. (Singh 2010)
l A common feature which may be prevalent in less advanced countries is to introduce a form of managerialism where the principle players in institutions are the senior administrative officers with faculties, departments, academics and students being ignored or assigned very minor roles. The disadvantage of this is that the central players in quality promotion are sidelined with the focus being placed on institutional systems of quality assurance and the quality itself being ignored.
In this regard, Pobiega (2011, 12) has made the important observation that: “Paradoxically, the external reviews focus on the internal systems for quality assurance, instead of investigating the ‘actual’ quality of teaching and students’ achievements…”.
This may be what has prompted Harvey (2005) to suggest that the quality assurance systems have failed “…to enhance transformative teaching and learning.”
Successes of modern quality assurance systems
As noted earlier, despite the reservations about and criticism of the quality assurance system, there have been some successes. We would like to add the following to the successes I mentioned earlier:
(a) Ngara’s study tour of higher education in Australia and Papua New Guinea in 1990 is quite instructive.
At the time, there was a big debate about a White Paper introduced by the then Minister of Employment, Education and Training, John Dawkins, who was encouraging higher education institutions to participate in a new system which was intended to abolish the binary system of higher education and to introduce quality assurance measures.
At that time it was already clear that those institutions that responded positively were now formulating mission statements and goals, formulating research management plans and proceeding on the basis of strategic planning. (Ngara 1994, 203) This was a complete departure from the traditional view that academic business is business as usual.
(b) Discussion on the impact of external quality audits in 2007 suggested that quality assurance had brought the following advantages to Australian higher education:
l fostering and promoting a quality culture
l formation of quality committees and creation of key roles to provide leadership in the promotion of quality
l the awarding of quality grants to some institutions as recognition of improvement in quality outcomes
l integration of strategic planning and quality into a single framework
l engagement of academic and general staff by forming quality reference groups with membership of deans, heads of programmes and directors (Mahsood Shah et al, 2010).
(c) There is no doubt that the Bologna Process initiated by European ministers of education has brought about standardisation in the degrees offered by universities in different European universities and consequently facilitated mutual recognition of qualifications and enhanced student mobility between universities of different countries. I believe similar developments are now taking place in East Africa, with special reference to Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda.
(d) In Australia, it has been found that the accreditation of courses with external accrediting bodies in such areas as law, engineering, construction and accounting, among others, facilitates the entry of students into professional bodies, and “…it also ensures that courses offered by universities are fit for purpose according to the standards of professional bodies to meet the changing needs of the industry or profession.” (Mahsood Shah et al 2010)
(e) An important development has been the involvement of students in quality assurance processes which has not only helped to enhance quality in teaching and learning, but has also enhanced the employability of students. (ESIB 2003)
(f) In some countries of southern Africa, Zimbabwe for example, there is now clear recognition of the fact that it does not help to introduce a degree without the approval of the national quality assurance agency and that programmes that have been accredited by a body like ZIMCHE are nationally recognised as quality programmes.
(g) Whatever the weaknesses of and criticisms against quality assurance, it has become a central feature of running universities and maintaining quality in higher education institutions. Quality assurance has become a key component of the international dimension of an academic institution and any country that ignores it runs the risk of discrediting the qualifications offered by its institutions and consequently of disadvantaging the products of those institutions as far as employment opportunities are concerned.

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