Quality Assurance – is it just a game in the higher education sector?

What is ‘quality assurance’? Lemaitre says, “Quality assurance in higher education is a process of establishing stakeholder confidence that provision (input, processes, outcomes) fulfils expectations or measures up to threshold minimum requirements” (Lemaitre, 2018, p. 1). Generally, quality assurance in higher education is a process of ensuring that the teaching and learning process meets the standards and expectations of the stakeholders (Martin and Stella, 2007; Skolnik, 2010). I use the European Higher Education Area definition from Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance:

At the heart of all quality assurance activities are the twin purposes of accountability and enhancement.

(ESG, 2015, p. 7)

The above definition is used among national quality assurance agencies in the European Higher Education Area (EHEA), including by Polish Accreditation Committee.

Accountability is the process through which an institution, program, graduate or external quality assurance agency meets previously determined quality standards (Lemaitre, 2018). In my opinion, it is close to control, whose purpose is to check whether there is a deviation from the planned action. The term ‘control’ can also be discussed more broadly, see for example the article ‘The Control Paradox’ by Hardy and Levine (2018).

Higher education institutions are based on fundamental values, including institutional autonomy and academic freedom. This means that the government has limited influence on higher education institutions. Therefore, I can see that the control function has been outsourced by the government to the quality assurance agencies, and their purpose accountability (an example of the concept of ‘New Public Management in Higher Education’ introduced by Don Westerheijden, 2013).

Enhancement is based on advising logic – the idea is to review the current situation, identify the desired situation, and then design and monitor actions that will lead us to the desired situation. The planned actions should close the gap between the current and the desired situation.

And here we have the problem. In my opinion, accountability (control) and enhancement (advising) cannot exist under one roof (however, you may find different opinions, for example: Thune, 1996; Middlehurst and Woodhouse, 1995).

When we are dealing with control, we want to pass it and/or get the best results in a ranking. So we show a controlling institution our strengths and hide our weaknesses. We play a game where the prize is the best placement in a ranking or accreditation. To be a good player, we need to know the rules and focus on them. The rules are the focus of our attention, and less so the teaching and learning process. Furthermore, in some instances one of the ways to win is to hack the game or cheat.

Dealing with enhancement is another story. We can compare enhancement with a visit to the doctor. If we want to be cured, we have to show our weaknesses. And then we get therapy from which we hope to recover. We will not hide our problems, because in that way we will not get well. The teaching and learning process should be the focus of our attention.

National quality assurance agencies in the EHEA, including the Polish Accreditation Committee (Brdulak 2021), do not focus on enhancement. One may wonder why? Because they are funded with public money and have to report on the efficiency of the use of this money. Accountability results are often easier to show; one can see which indicators are met and which are not. If they are met – great, we are spending public money correctly. If they are not fulfilled – the controlled entity has a problem. The results of enhancement are difficult to show, often because the prescriptions do not have to lead to an improvement (not all medicines work). And doubts about efficiency can arise. You can read more about this topic in the book by Don Westerheijden (2013).

Source: Adobe Stock, Author: Dilok

So we play. Sometimes this game can be far removed from the actual process of teaching and learning that should be at the heart of quality assurance.

However, there are examples of higher education institutions that try not only to play but also to seek some quality assurance values. The departments responsible for quality assurance at the leading Polish universities not only play along, but also try to create some value for teaching and learning. The University of Warsaw, for example, conducts research in the field of quality assurance and publishes the results in prestigious international journals. The results of the research are also used by the authorities. Jagiellonian University uses quality assurance as a whistleblower – it regularly conducts surveys among students on some sensitive issues. The response rate to these surveys is very low; however it helps them to investigate any alarming signals. Other universities try to increase student and faculty engagement by inviting them to a discussion on didactics, for example.

Many universities focus on the game only – the main aim of a quality assurance unit is to deliver the content expected by an accreditation agency (and/or often a ranking institution), so the quality assurance unit focuses on external requirements. The university pays to pass the next level, because accreditations are mandatory, and rankings have a significant impact on the number of applicants… But is that the goal of quality assurance? Where does that leave the teaching and learning process?

If we abolish quality assurance in universities, we could also abolish bureaucratic games, and that would be the most efficient way to spend public money. But that’s not always possible, is it? So nowadays it pays for universities to have experienced players on board. They can be good teachers, but at times they also have to be good hackers.

About the author

Jakub Brdulak

Jakub Brdulak is a Professor of SGH Warsaw School of Economics in Poland. He gained experience in higher education policy as a visiting scholar at the Center for Higher Education Policy Studies (CHEPS) at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. His research roots are in management – he has practical experience in consulting and controlling.
Jakub Brdulak has been the Polish delegate to the Bologna Follow-up Group on Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) since 2016. More information: https://www.linkedin.com/in/brdulak

Published by Jakub Brdulak

Jakub Brdulak is a Professor of SGH Warsaw School of Economics in Poland. He gained experience in higher education policy as a visiting scholar at the Center for Higher Education Policy Studies (CHEPS) at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. His research roots are in management – he has practical experience in consulting and controlling. Jakub Brdulak has been the Polish delegate to the Bologna Follow-up Group on Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) since 2016. More information: https://www.linkedin.com/in/brdulak

One thought on “Quality Assurance – is it just a game in the higher education sector?

  1. Tom Worthington – Canberra – An educational technology consultant, Certified Professional member of the Australian Computer Society, and part time university lecturer.
    Tom Worthington says:

    I agree that universities needs good teachers, but they should be more than gifted amateur “hackers”, they should be qualified professional educators. Part of what you learn as a professional is compliance with standards.

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