Academic journal article Australian Journal of Education

The Politics of Quality Assurance: The Australian Quality Assurance Program for Higher Education, 1993-1995

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Education

The Politics of Quality Assurance: The Australian Quality Assurance Program for Higher Education, 1993-1995

Article excerpt

Using interest group theory and the idea of public policy development and application following sequential stages, this paper explores how key decisions were made about the establishment and implementation of the controversial national quality assurance program for higher education that operated in Australia from 1993 to 1995. The paper explains how Australia came to introduce a quality assurance program that differed substantially from those established in other OECD countries.

Introduction

This paper considers a question that since the early 1990s has puzzled many academics and administrators in Australian universities. The question simply is this: how did Australia come to establish a national quality assurance program for higher education that differed substantially from those set in place at the same time by other OECD countries, and one that had the potential to damage the reputations of those universities given low rankings in assessments?

Like a number of other national quality assurance programs that were established in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Australian program that operated from 1993 to 1995 was based on institutional audits of participating universities. But what was markedly different was that the Australian audits assessed not only `quality assurance processes' but also `quality outcome'. The importance of this distinction is explained later in the paper. Further, the Australian program included:

* ranking of institutions into bands, based on annual assessments and publication of these rankings;

* publication of detailed individual institutional annual reports; and

* performance funding, with funding coming from a special additional government allocation.

In contrast, the quality assurance programs introduced in most European countries about the same time did not use rankings of institutions, publish detailed institutional reports, or use performance funding in an overt way. In the Netherlands, for example, the quality assurance system, developed in the late 1980s and based on reviews of academic disciplines, published reports of reviews for each institution, but there were no rankings of institutions or use of performance funding (Zijderveld, 1997). In the French program that included both institutional evaluations and disciplinary assessments, there were no rankings and the results of assessments were not used directly in making annual allocations to institutions (van Vught, 1994). In the United Kingdom, collectively the universities had established a program of academic audits conducted by an Academic Audit Unit (Williams, 1991). Audits were voluntary and focused on quality assurance processes, with reports going only to the university being reviewed.

The term `quality assurance' has come into the higher education vocabulary only over the past decade. Although there are many definitions (e.g. see Birnbaum, 1994; Harman, 1996b), in essence, quality assurance has come to refer to management and assessment procedures adopted to ensure achievement of particular quality outcomes or quality improvements, and thus to enable stakeholders to have confidence in the management of quality and the outcomes achieved.

In this paper, interest group theory and the idea of public policy development and application generally following sequential stages are used in the analysis. Data come from documentary sources, from the personal experiences of the author as a member of a university senior management team, and from interviews with about a dozen key individuals intimately involved with design and implementation of the 1993-95 quality assurance program. Interviewees included government officials, interest group leaders, members of the Committee for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (the Wilson Committee) and senior university staff.

The paper first introduces the idea of political interpretations of evaluation and outlines the theoretical perspectives to be used, and then provides detail on the 1993-95 quality assurance program for Australian higher education. …

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