OECD: Diverse processes, common objectives

Across OECD countries, tertiary education is rapidly becoming the baseline standard for citizens to perform and fully participate in the economy and society. The knowledge revolution taking place is highlighted by a trend towards mass participation and increasingly diversified and flexible types of provision.

Broad participation puts strains on tertiary education as far greater numbers of students than ever before must be effectively equipped to meet the challenges of the knowledge society. They must also be prepared to subsequently update their knowledge and skills as the knowledge frontier moves along. The current transformation of systems that had been fairly stable since the 19th century, has raised questions about quality and has, over the past two decades, heightened the need for some form of quality assurance.

A comparative analysis of quality assurance policies and practices was completed as part of the OECD's Thematic Review of Tertiary Education. It reveals a number of noteworthy trends. The 24 countries which took part in this exercise come from distinct tertiary education settings, with different histories, organisation and modes of governance. In spite of this, there is some convergence of quality assurance systems that promotes improvement within institutions while providing some accountability to stakeholders.

In many countries, the emphasis is shifting from external control and regulation to greater responsibility by institutions for their own quality monitoring. Here, quality assurance is used as a way of assisting institutions in making the most of their newly-granted autonomy, although this autonomy is usually accompanied by the establishment of effective accountability mechanisms.

Countries also share the need to address one of the great paradoxes of modern tertiary education - a deep conflict embedded in developments of quality assurance worldwide. On the one hand, the importance of tertiary education for employment and social cohesion demands quality for all. Meanwhile, innovation and technological advance for economic growth require safeguarding the national competitive edge, advertising differences in quality and identifying champions. In Europe, the Bologna and Lisbon processes reflect the co-existence of these dual objectives. Quality assurance systems thus face the challenge of addressing both goals.

It is striking that even though countries converge in their overall approach and objectives, their processes remain extremely diverse. In practice, quality assurance activities take many forms and cover a wide spectrum of processes that are designed to monitor, maintain and enhance quality.

The OECD study provides an internationally comparative snapshot of current practices. It highlights the diversity of instruments used, such as accreditation, assessment or audit mechanisms. It also identifies significant variations in the focus of evaluations (institutions or programmes), their scope (territorial jurisdictions and types of institution covered), their initiation (compulsory versus voluntary monitoring) and their frequency (cyclical versus ad-hoc).

Countries also display great variations in the organisation of their quality assurance systems in terms of number and type of agencies involved, the role granted to different stakeholders, the outcomes of quality monitoring and the use of follow-up processes - including rewards and sanctions.

Another salient trend is change. Quality assurance processes are by no means static and the review of national policies reveals constant adjustments and refinements of approaches and processes over time - as illustrated for instance by recent or ongoing reforms in France, Greece, Portugal and Spain.

Yet one feature emerges across countries in this respect: as quality assurance systems mature and confidence and trust are built up between tertiary institutions and stakeholders, approaches tend to move from being driven by accountability to being driven by improvements. This trend reflects the fact that quality assurance needs to be seen as an ongoing process of learning and dialogue between institutions, funders and stakeholders if routine processes, bureaucratisation and window-dressing are to be avoided. There is a need for constant reflection and change in external quality assurance mechanisms to ensure their effectiveness.

One last significant challenge for quality assurance is to address the implications of national and international rankings and their growing media impact. The past few years have seen the emergence of civil society as a new player in quality assurance through the development of institution rankings and league tables − albeit informally and outside of national quality assurance frameworks.

These rankings typically combine various quantitative variables into a single, all-encompassing 'score' which is presented as a proxy for the quality of the institution. They have received harsh criticism from institutions and quality assurance specialists due to their arbitrariness, sensitivity to the weightings of the different criteria considered, lack of reliability and bias towards larger institutions with good inputs in terms of money and talented students.

Yet there is extensive evidence of their strong signalling power and persuasive role in prospective students' choice of an institution. As imperfect as they are, rankings satisfy a public demand for transparency and information. In the absence of better alternatives they are here to stay.

In many countries, policy makers have sought to counterbalance the impact of rankings by publishing quality related information so users can develop their own judgment. But these sources are often plagued by gaps in the information base, in particular on objective measurement of learning outcomes.

One clear conclusion of the OECD review is that quality assurance agencies can no longer ignore rankings and their impact on stakeholders' decisions. They need to enhance the international comparability and transparency of their own assessments and promote the development of better measures of quality by shifting emphasis towards institutional added value and student outcomes.

* Karine Tremblay is Senior Survey Manager for Higher Education in the OECD Education Directorate.

OECD Thematic Review of Tertiary Education