Quality assurance in a changing higher education world

The first annual meeting of the US Council for Higher Education Accreditation’s International Quality Group was held last week, with a focus on the open education movement, growth of online, competency-based education and learning outside the traditional university – major higher education trends worldwide.

The gathering explored issues in international higher education and their implications for quality assurance, academic corruption, ‘open badges’ and new ways of validating learning achievement, the open education movement including MOOCs, quality assurance in Central and Eastern Europe, and whether higher education is addressing economic and employment challenges.

What the meeting of the CHEA International Quality Group (CIQG) and the CHEA annual conference that preceded it tried to do, President Judith S Eaton told University World News, was “to focus on what the future is going to be like.

“We want to be able to anticipate, because there is so much happening around higher education and quality worldwide.”

Launched last September the CIQG is aimed at advancing international quality assurance and assisting institutions, and accreditation and quality assurance organisations, to enhance capacity as they expand international engagement.

Its advisory council was appointed in December, with 22 members from Australia, Belgium, Chile, China, Egypt, France, India, Israel, Nigeria and the United States.

The group has got off to an impressive start – over and above CHEA institutional members in the United States, the CIQG now has 75 members from 32 countries. “I’m delighted with the interest that the CIQG has attracted,” said Eaton. Furthermore, a quarter of the more than 400 delegates at last week’s meetings in Washington, DC, were from around 30 countries.

The CIQG has produced the first edition of its newsletter, and is getting down to writing policy briefs coming out of the first advisory council meeting.

“There was interest in CIQG reaching out to governments and ministers about what they are worried about, the importance of quality assurance and what they might they need to know, ” said Eaton. The idea is to produce briefs that are “clear, straightforward, direct, short” and useful.

“We also want to focus on the consultation services we would like to provide. We want to go into phase two of our membership drive with CIQG. And we want to focus the agenda on major projects in which we want to be engaged.” CHEA’s 3,000 members are being surveyed to identify issues of importance to them.

The annual meetings, said Eaton, also looked at the role of quality assurance today and what needs to be done to assure curricula and instruction in ways that really benefit students academically – questions that are as relevant to the international quality assurance community as they are to the US.

Equally, the development of MOOCs is a global issue. “If you look at enrolments, for example, with Coursera and the other MOOCs that have emerged, the student population is international,” Eaton pointed out. “In relation to MOOCs, the whole movement towards digital badges, to electronically document student competencies, is important."

A related issue is how innovations such as MOOCs will affect the growth of quality assurance in developing countries, particularly those in which quality assurance processes are newer, such as Central and Eastern Europe, and some countries in the Middle East and Africa.

“It is not that they’re just starting with quality assurance, but the structures and practices are more recent – maybe in the last 10 years rather than the last 25 or in the US over 100 years – and they are developing quality assurance practices in an environment that’s becoming very different from the traditionally, institutionally driven practice of higher education.

“And because they’re in earlier stages they have to take into account things like MOOCs, things like the emphasis on education for work, whether evidence of education comes through badges or degrees,” Eaton explained.

“In other words, their practices are likely to have to embrace over time these ‘disruptive’ innovations in higher education, and I use disruptive in a constructive sense. They have to take into account ranking systems and data sets that allow for comparative analysis of what institutions might do for students, and that’s going to produce changes in quality assurance practices generally.”

Previously, Eaton pointed out, quality assurance worldwide was “the spread of the familiar”. “Countries such as the US, the UK, Canada, New Zealand and Australia had longer histories with quality assurance and as quality assurance was developed formally in other countries, a lot of the practices that were done in the UK in particular were picked up in developing countries.

“Now we are seeing what is not the spread of the familiar. We’re seeing rankings systems in qualifications frameworks and are figuring out what to do with MOOCs if they involve credit or competency-based badges.

“We have to take all these newer tools and practices into account when we talk about quality assurance. I think that’s a fascinating development.”

This, said Eaton, ties into an important theme – especially in regions such as Europe and the Middle East – which is higher education as preparation for work.

“Do you need to go to an institution, or can you take a MOOC or can you get credit for life experience or can you go in a straighter line to an online university that is competency based and earn your credits that way?

“I think we’re in a very exciting time for higher education, and it’s also difficult. And, of course, quality assurance has to be a key element in responding to the changes out there.”