Special Issue: Maintaining and Developing Quality in Institutions of Higher Education in the 21st Century

Article excerpt

Editor's introduction

The issue of quality in higher education is even more elusive than it is in other human endeavours. To use a well-worn but eminently serviceable cliche, quality, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Depending on the social, political, economic or educational context in which the discussion on quality is conducted, it will look different, mean different things, and will lead to different practical proposals of how to bring it about, or to maintain it.

It is not overstating the case to observe that the context in which institutions of higher education must presently operate is mainly shaped by economic performance, viability, and accountability. This in itself is not a bad thing. It becomes counterproductive, however, when the value-driven economic imperative outweighs other concerns on the assumption that the economic agenda is the only defensible game in town driven by purportedly objective criteria. The kind of framework imposed by economic criteria that `one size fits all', and that the same economic criteria can be applied across different institutions, faculties and disciplines in equal measure and with the same justification, shortchanges and thus distorts the significant differences between them. For example, the quality of a university might, among other things, be measured by the provisions it makes for the teaching of less marketable fields of studies like the classics, history, or philosophy. This is, of course, a very old-fashioned small T view of what a university should be doing, and how it should in part define its mission. Old-fashioned it might be but, at the same time, who is to say that such studies do not contribute to making better practitioners -- of the law, of teaching, of medicine, etc.? Some are only too readily seduced by a narrow conception of professional education which emphasises skills and techniques at the expense of teaching the relevant contexts, broadly understood, which, in fact, determine what these skills mean and how they will be applied. Split the two apart -- context from skill and technique -- and we end up training, rather than educating, and producing technocrats who are not intellectually flexible or knowledgeable enough to meet challenges successfully and creatively.

The above view is, of course, my view and no-one else's. However, my general concern is shared by the guest editor and is reflected in various ways by his contributors. The impressive array of writers commissioned by Stephen Marshall examine the issue of maintaining and developing quality in institutions of higher education in the 21st century from the vantage points of their respective responsibilities which cover many of the central functions of institutions of higher education. They cover the ground reflectively and critically. Their contributions provide the kind of intellectual effort needed to place the quality agenda in its broader context and thus to ensure that we gain a better understanding of how to shape institutions for the next century responsibly.

Gabriele Lakomski

Introduction by Guest Editor

Quality has always been an issue within the higher education sector in Australia and elsewhere. However, the last decade has seen the issue of quality in higher education brought to the forefront of political agendas, as governments and communities demand higher education institutions be more accountable for their efforts. But what is meant by `quality' in higher education? What are, or should be, our goals in relation to quality in this context? How can we realise these goals? These issues have been debated at length in Australia and elsewhere. Numerous articles, books, and theses have been written, exploring such topics as:

* quality and disciplinary differences

* quality assurance and quality improvement

* quality management and performance measures/indicators

* quality assessment and traditional university values

* the quality of students' experiences of higher education. …