The overarching theme of the Melbourne Forum is the future of external quality assurance as it may impact on developed as well as developing agencies.
The last 20 or so years has seen external quality develop from (in international terms) a minority occupation to a close to universal phenomenon. For much of that period quality assurance agencies were generally invested with a good deal of autonomy, subject in most cases to some form of overarching control exercised by governments; although in some parts of the world agencies have not achieved the full operational autonomy as advocated in INQAAHE’s Guidelines of Good Practice. However, in recent years governments of countries where historically agencies had considerable operating autonomy are now either exercising, or are talking about exercising, greater control; notable examples being Australia and the USA.
A good number of factors are contributing to these developments and the Melbourne forum will consider a range of related issues but will in particular focus on three aspects which are to a large measure related to the steady or, in some cases, spectacular, growth in the number of higher education students.
Methodology for EQA
There is a growing belief that the traditional approach for external quality assurance (EQA) (with each programme preparing a self- assessment report, being visited by three to five experts, having a decision made programme by programme) is too expensive in terms of money and human resources. Ways need to be found to retain the good features of the traditional approach while at the same time making QA more sustainable in the medium and long terms. Some agencies have explored different modes, and their experiences could serve to analyse possible developments.
Consideration of desirable and possible (not all of which might be desirable) developments on methodology will need to take into account a range of factors of which the following appear to be the more significant.
In many countries the proportion of HE credits earned by students studying full-time at university institutions is in decline and many of our members are dealing with both universities and non-university institutions as well as having to consider the QA aspects of credits earned outside institutions. In addition many higher education credits are now being gained in non HE institutions, in some cases schools. These institutions are subject to different QA arrangements than HE institutions, typically involving a more “inspectorial approach”.
We need to discuss the similarities and differences between QA for university (higher) education, and that addressing non university, professional or vocational education. Are there significant differences in quality criteria, procedures, reviewers? What are they, and what can we learn from each other?
We also need to find ways in which our members can work more closely with the other agencies involved in the QA of non-HE institutions where nonetheless HE credits can be obtained and generally provide a better service to such institutions and their students while attention need also be given to links with those responsible for quality assurance in the field of Vocational Education and Training (VET). A particular issue is a consideration of the merits and demerits of there being a national single agency responsible for the QA of both “traditional” higher education and VET.
As QA agencies develop and mature they increasingly have to deal with institutions ranging from those that are well established and been subject to numerous reviews and those which are very newly established and which may also be using non-traditional methods of delivery. In addition even within the group of mature institutions there is a wide diversity of institutions. There are frequent complaints from institutions that standards seemed to be designed from the perspective of the traditional research based universities.
It is clear that the “one size fits all” model is not a sensible approach but consideration needs to be given as to how an agency can relate in different ways to institutions that fall within its remit while maintaining a consistency of standards and fairness to all.
In some countries distinctions are drawn between the QA of publicly financed HEIs and private institutions while in others the distinction is drawn between “for profit” institutions and others (although the fact that many public institutions operate very much as “for profit” institutions when operating outside their home countries is often ignored).
Consideration needs to be given as the question of the extent to which the basic methodology needs to be amended to deal with private or, especially, “for profit” institutions and, if so, the changes that need to be made.
The growing recognition of the importance of internal quality assurance and in particular the promotion of an institutional quality culture
INQAAHE’s Guidelines of Good Practice emphasize that quality is primarily the responsibility of higher education institutions. Many of the ‘better’ institutions have no problems with developing internal quality assurance mechanisms, but EQA agencies should focus on ensuring that all HEIs actually proceed in this direction. Quality audits and the focus on internal quality assurance mechanisms as well as on the self-regulatory capacity of institutions are interesting developments, which could be shared and its merits and demerits discussed and analysed.
How can INQAAHE work with our member QA agencies in order to enable them to help institutions develop such things as quality management practices, to link planning with self and external evaluation, to develop institutional research capacity and in general create a quality culture? Such changes will of themselves have a considerable impact on the methodology of QA agencies.
Changing perceptions of independence from the perspective of both EQA and institutions
INQAAHE’s GGP include the following
That the EQAA recognises that institutional and programmatic quality and quality assurance are primarily the responsibility of the higher education institutions themselves; (Section 5); and
An EQAA must be independent, i.e. it has autonomous responsibility for its operations, and its judgments cannot be influenced by third parties. (Section 9)
These guidelines provide a context for an important discussion that needs to be held regarding agency and institutional independence. The discussion has perhaps two main purposes. The first is to help agencies (and institutions) deal with governments and other agencies whose policies may be impacting on their decision making autonomy while the second is how EQA methodology might need to be modified to reflect the changing situation.
There are a number of developments that have a potential impact on the degree of independence enjoyed by the HE sector. In Europe for example most QA agencies are working under the Bologna agenda that requires them to organise their work according to priorities that come from government and not from their own decisions. Another issue is the desire of some governments to combine traditional QA approaches with the checking of regulatory adherence; Australia being a notable but not the only example.
At the institutional level the adoption of qualification frameworks, both at the generic and disciplinary level, impacts on the freedom that many HEIs enjoyed in the past to design their own programmes of study.
It seems important to revisit the question of the independence of the QA agencies from governments. What is the actual meaning of independence? What are (or should be) the links between national policies, or national priorities, and QA criteria or procedures? What links should be established between quality assurance and other policy instruments (funding, incentives, information, etc.)? What experiences can be shared in this respect? How can agencies effectively interact with governments with relation to QA?
The relation of QA agencies with their government is a key issue which all agencies will have to face in the near future, and which should be addressed in order better to understand what does ‘independence’ mean in this context. Richard Lewis on behalf of the Melbourne Members’ Forum Programme Committee.