An Assessment of Past and Current Approaches to Quality in Higher Education

Article excerpt

This paper argues that, despite an increasing uniformity of approach to quality monitoring, there is little analysis of the rationale behind the methods because there is little exploration of what `quality' is in a higher education context. Despite good intentions, quality monitoring has become over-bureaucratic and the potential for significant change has been hampered by a focus on accountability rather than improvement. Furthermore, the accountability focus, despite its onerous and somewhat oppressive burden, is a safe process for higher education because it does not consider the nature of learning or what is learned. By focusing on accountability, the transformative potential of quality monitoring is not fulfilled.

Introduction

`Quality' has evolved from a marginal position to being the foremost concern in higher education alongside funding issues. The evolution of quality has been one from vague concept to articulated procedures. Furthermore, there is considerable conformity of procedures across national boundaries and the tendency to a dominant model of external scrutiny of quality in higher education.

Approaches to quality in higher education in most countries have started with an assumption that, for various reasons, the quality of higher education needs monitoring. At root, governments around the world are looking for higher education to be more responsive, including:

* making higher education more relevant to social and economic needs;

* widening access to higher education;

* expanding numbers, usually in the face of decreasing unit cost;

* ensuring comparability of provision and procedures, within and between institutions, including international comparisons.

Quality has been used as a tool to ensure some compliance with these concerns. However the rationale and policy often tend to be worked out after the decision to undertake an audit, assessment or accreditation process has been made. Thus approaches to quality are predominantly about establishing quality monitoring procedures.

The organisation, degree of government control, extent of devolved responsibility and funding of higher education systems vary considerably from one country to the next. However, the rapid changes taking place in higher education are tending to lead to a convergence towards a dominant model for quality. This model is one of delegated accountability. Central to this process is the emphasis placed on quality as a vehicle for delivering policy requirements within available resources.

Delegated accountability

External quality monitoring (EQM) is not restricted to one or two types of higher education system. It can be found in all types of higher education systems, including:

* the `Continental model' of `centralised-autonomy' found in much of western Europe including Italy, France and Austria;

* the `British model' of autonomous institutions also found throughout much of the Commonwealth;

* `market systems' such as the United States of America and the Philippines;

* `semi-market' systems such as Taiwan and Brazil;

* centralised systems such as China;

* newly devolved systems such as those in eastern Europe, the Baltic states and Scandinavia.

The development of most EQM systems has been as a result of a pragmatic response to government mandates, and systems adapt and respond to changing situations. However, within this fluid situation, some common themes emerge, suggesting a convergence to a dominant form of accountable autonomy (Figure 1). The systems that have traditionally espoused a market approach and those that have been influenced by the traditional British system of autonomous institutions supported by the state are finding their autonomy being eroded by government-backed requirements to demonstrate accountability and value for money (Bauer & Kogan, 1995). …

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