Quality Assurance and the Quality of University Teaching

Article excerpt

The quality of university teaching is increasingly the subject of political rhetoric, but doubt remains about both actual performance outcomes and the role and relevance of the Australian Universities Quality Agency (AUQA). Present quality procedures are found to be inadequate, and scepticism about AUQA's capacity to achieve its aims is well justified for two reasons: the almost complete lack of recognition of the importance of incentives to motivate teachers to allocate effort towards teaching at the expense of research; and the inadequate attention to the need for more accurate indicators of teaching performance. This paper suggests ways of improving the effectiveness of AUQA in raising the quality of university teaching. Two key reforms suggested are: (a) the wide reporting of more accurate teaching performance indicators; (b) a revised university funding model in which university income is based on teaching performance indicators in the same way that research income is based on research performance indicators.

   There are, however, concerns about Australia's existing approach to
   quality and standards. There is too much emphasis on institutional
   quality assurance and not enough on learning outcomes ... There is
   evidence that many students are not satisfied with the quality of
   areas of university teaching ... teaching needs to be accorded a
   much higher status in universities. (Department of Education,
   Science and Training, 2002)

I Introduction

Quality in higher education has long been a concern or preoccupation of the Australian Government, as evidenced by the Higher Education Council (1992) paper, Quality in higher education and, more recently by the Department of Education, Science and Training (DEST) (2002) paper, Striving for quality. In the intervening years, the West Report (Review of Higher Education Financing, 1998) and the Senate (2001) Report, Universities in crisis, kept the same fires burning. Two contemporary factors have now intensified this concern for academic teaching quality, namely the cutback in public funding of universities, and the increasingly visible move from an elite towards a mass education system. In that context, a national quality assurance agency has been established and increasing attention is being given to institutional quality assurance processes. This paper explains quality assurance as a response to problems of information asymmetry and it criticises the extant and proposed assurance processes with respect to university teaching quality.

The Senate Employment, Workplace Relations, Small Business and Education References Committee (2001) was sceptical about the ability of the Australian Universities Quality Agency (AUQA) to achieve its objectives (pp. 175, 180). Interestingly AUQA did not make a submission to the Senate inquiry and perhaps it is also odd that of the 364 submissions received by the Committee only a 'small number' dealt with the subject of quality (p. 174). Indeed the fact that, of the 390 pages of the Senate Report, only 7 pages (pp. 174-180) dealt directly with quality assurance is surprising if not disturbing, but no doubt a reflection of the small number of submissions on the subject. Also, there was only one brief reference to the link between teaching quality and 'rewards' for teaching performance, despite growing evidence that the incentive structure biases academic effort away from teaching towards research (Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs [DETYA], 1999; Guest & Duhs, 2002). There were no references at all in the Senate Report to the issue of asymmetric information in academic markets that inhibits the quality of academic programs (Clarke, 1998, 2000). These are the issues that motivate this article.

The remainder of the article is organised as follows. Section 2 highlights two key findings of the Senate (2001) Committee that have heightened concerns about quality--a squeeze in public funding and the continuing shift from an elite to a mass higher education system implying greater student diversity. …