Flexibility key to meaningful quality assurance at universities
Universities and higher education systems around the world have become fixated on quality. They have tried any number of initiatives designed to improve it.
And they have looked for structures that will produce concrete evidence of effectiveness and efficiency.
The major drive is to ensure that universities provide quality higher education based on a minimum set of criteria and standards. At the same time, it is expected to improve quality within an institution.
But does it work? I undertook a study in Ethiopian universities as part of my PhD research project to find out. Ethiopia’s higher education has expanded considerably from about 2004 – from eight public universities to 36. Private universities now account for about 15% of the total tertiary student population. Enrolment rates have climbed, too. Most of these students are pursuing technology or engineering-related degrees.
Preliminary evidence suggests that the quality of teaching and learning has actually dropped, despite quality assurance systems. Why?
First, a word about what “quality assurance” entails. The average system requires evidence of “quality” at an institutional level. This is measured, for example, by research output, student progression and graduation rates. Lecturers are expected to keep track of such details, often by means of overly prescriptive teaching and learning assessment policies.
My research found that there is no evidence to show widespread qualitative change in classroom practices or students’ learning experiences.
Ethiopian universities frequently struggle to get basic and essential learning resources and students’ academic work depends on notes by lecturers.
The quality assurance systems used have not been developed with Ethiopia’s specific context in mind. They rely on adherence to externally imposed definitions and structures. It’s about performing common actions. So a lecturer at an under-resourced Ethiopian university is expected to behave in the same way as a colleague at a wealthy Australian institution.
Often these systems have limited information on quality improvement. Their emphasis is on “the big picture”, such as student graduation numbers, rather than daily academic and learning experiences. These systems don’t regard regular academic practices or students’ learning experiences as important information that might contribute to improvement.
Quality assurance programmes have a role to play, but they must be more flexible about collecting essential data at an individual level rather than just focusing on the institutional level.
Tefera Tadesse is assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at Jimma University in Ethiopia.