Professional Development and Quality in Higher Education Institutions of the 21st Century

By Marshall, Stephen J. | Australian Journal of Education, November 1998 | Go to article overview

Professional Development and Quality in Higher Education Institutions of the 21st Century


Marshall, Stephen J., Australian Journal of Education


The issue of quality in higher education in Australia, as elsewhere, remains problematic. This is not surprising given that past and current approaches at both the institutional and sectoral levels have tended to focus on the assurance, assessment, monitoring, and reporting of quality rather than on the improvement of quality itself. Quality is not something that needs simply to be monitored and measured. Rather, it must be actively managed with a view to continuous improvement and development. This paper describes a model for continuous improvement of quality in higher education and the central role that professional development plays in such a process.

Introduction

The issue of quality in higher education institutions in Australia, as elsewhere, remains problematic. Fundamental questions like:

* What is it?

* How can it be assured, maintained and developed?

* How should it be reported? remain largely unresolved.

Despite nearly a decade of research and development on the part of academics, policy makers, and others, a clear definition of what is meant by quality in higher education has eluded us. As Harvey and Green (1993) have suggested, `quality' can mean a number of things: `excellence', `perfection' (or consistency), `fitness for purpose', `value for money', and `transformation'. Exactly which is relevant at any particular time is, in large part, contextually defined. Depending on who is using the term and for what purpose, quality might assume any one or more of these meanings. For example, at times of program review when financiers need to make decisions about which programs should continue to be funded and which should be dropped, quality often means `fitness for purpose'. Questions like: `Does an innovation/process adequately meet the purpose(s) for which it was designed?' become of prime importance.

However, in reporting the impact of a program or innovation on student learning, reviewers might use the term `quality' in what Harvey and Green (1993) have called its `transformative' sense, to indicate that a qualitative or fundamental change has occurred in students' understanding of particular concepts.

Lack of clarity over meaning has resulted in much confusion and protracted debate. Any survey of the literature on quality in higher education over the last five years reveals the extent to which this lack of conceptual clarity has contributed to the relatively slow development of the area as a field of research and investigation. Despite the enormous amount of thinking and work that has been undertaken in the area by a large number of individuals in a variety of different national and institutional settings, the highly political nature of `quality' has kept the focus of the debate on the theoretical issues of defining the concept and ways and means of measuring it, rather than on the practical issues of assuring, maintaining and developing quality within our institutions and their programs.

The almost universal adoption of institutional level, external quality monitoring and assessment procedures for accountability purposes (Harvey, 1998; Yorke, 1996) has, to a large extent, guaranteed a lack of any significant impact on improving the `quality' of the day-to-day work of teachers or researchers (Vroeijenstijn, 1995). Quality, it seems, has and is treated by policy makers in many countries (see, for example, the quality processes that have developed in Australia, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and France) as something that can be considered independently of the day-to-day management cycles of institutions and the activities of their staff. Annual/biennial/triennial cycles of external audit designed to monitor and report upon institutional policies, procedures, and performance are assumed to be sufficient to guarantee quality in teaching, research, and community outreach/service.

However, as numerous studies over the last 20 years have shown (see Berman & McLaughlin, 1975; Datta, 1981; Elmore, 1978; Fullen, 1991; Marshall, 1993; McDonnell & Elmore, 1987), policy intentions, such as the maintenance and development of quality in educational institutions, are rarely realised through the use of policy instruments designed to measure or monitor compliance with externally mandated standards or procedures. …

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