National or international quality standards - or both?

Whether a rapidly changing higher education world needs a single set of quality standards was a major topic of debate at a meeting of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation's International Quality Group, or CIQG, held in Washington DC. There was some consensus around developing global standards that are able to articulate with strong national quality systems.

Peter Okebukola, president of the Global University Network for Innovation - Africa, and a member of the CIQG advisory council, summed up the discussion this way:

"The overall essence, whether national, regional or composite international standards, is to ensure that the higher education system in terms of its processes and products reflects the aspirations and socio-cultural context of the community which the system serves while recognising the increasingly global nature of higher education delivery."

Around 400 people from 30 countries attended the CIQG 2014 annual meeting on 30 January, titled "Imperatives for Quality Assurance: International Standards and Innovation".

They included leaders, professionals and researchers from higher education institutions and the national, regional and global quality assurance communities, senior government officials, policy-makers and student groups.

The CIQG was launched in September 2012 with the aim of advancing understanding of international quality issues. It provides a forum for universities, colleges, accrediting and quality assurance bodies, and already has some 100 institutional members around the world.

Changing circumstances

The starting point of the 2014 meeting was that with higher education and quality assurance becoming increasingly international, the question has arisen as to whether a global set of standards is needed or quality assurance should remain country-based or regional.

New forms of higher education are evolving, said Stamenka Uvalic-Trumbic, senior advisor on international affairs for the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, or CHEA, and former head of higher education at UNESCO.

There has been an explosion of transnational higher education, new technologies and global student, academic and labour mobility, and the emergence of new forms of knowledge and skills in an increasingly integrated world.

There are qualification frameworks in a growing number of countries and they are closely linked to quality assurance systems, and a 'converging diversity' of regional quality assurance frameworks.

Meanwhile, with the growing influence of international university rankings, there is a danger that rankings are becoming a proxy for quality, and there is pressure for proof of standards among students and parents.

There are tensions between the imperatives for setting international standards and the need for contextual standards. However, Okebukola pointed out, "there is a third direction, one of innovation, embracing contextualised norms, benchmarked against international standards".

Burning questions

CHEA President Judith Eaton said the CIQG had identified two imperatives - international standards and innovation - that quality assurance bodies were being challenged to address, and against which their credibility, value and contributions were being measured.

"It's not an identical challenge in every country or region, but the challenge is there and what we do in response will have an impact on not only a few activities but perhaps even the fundamentals of our practices."

Eaton pointed out that there has been much debate on rankings and it was important to consider whether there was going to be convergence in the activity on rankings and the issue of international standards.

Regarding innovation, more and more students were obtaining some higher education experience outside of traditional universities and colleges - what could be called 'post-traditional' or 'extra-institutional' or 'non-traditional' learning.

"But the key point is, what if we see many more students seeking some sort of higher education experience, not a degree in particular, and that experience is offered apart from traditional colleges and universities, what about the quality of these offerings? Do we in the quality assurance community have a responsibility here or not, and if so, what is it?"

Uvalic-Trumbic told the meeting that inter-governmental organisations such as UNESCO had been working on developing standards and instruments aimed at reaching consensus around quality that would support improvements in higher education and, therefore, development.

Examples were the Lisbon Convention on Recognition of Degrees and Diplomas, the Arusha Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications in Higher Education, and UNESCO-OECD Guidelines on Cross-Border Higher Education and Guidelines for Open Educational Resources.

The challenge in establishing such instruments, said Uvalic-Trumbic, has been to bring together the top-down and the bottom-up approaches in a way that ensures local and international acceptability.

The debate

Pros and cons of a single set of international quality standards were debated by Anthony McClaran, chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education in the United Kingdom, and Andree Sursock, senior advisor for the European University Association.

McClaran pointed out that among the issues to be faced before considering international standards are the lack of a shared definition of quality, and the strongly country-based nature of quality assurance.

However, international quality standards do not necessarily clash with national standards. For example, each of the UK's four countries has their own policies for and authority over higher education. Alongside these systems is a national quality assurance framework that embraces them all. Students take advantage of this to move freely across borders, confident that they are studying within a single quality framework.

Further, the idea of international quality standards has gained traction, and many regional and transnational groups are at different levels of establishing standards, indicating acceptance of the idea.

There are numerous benefits of such developments.

One is that countries developing assurance systems could benefit by benchmarking against best practices elsewhere. This could ensure confidence in national quality systems, including among international students - therefore, international standards could be a catalyst for student mobility.

Second, a single set of quality standards would make international comparisons easier and more effective, since there would be shared criteria and indicators against which to measure performance.

Third, international standards would help to facilitate transnational education and enable greater collaboration between higher education institutions around the world, with students assured of the quality, equivalence and portability of degrees.

Fourth, a global market for quality assurance services would emerge, enabled by international standards developed through consensus. A further benefit could be the creation of a global quality assurance register.

Finally, international quality standards could stimulate the development of higher education systems and the recognition of excellence, and could ensure that weaker systems are more objectively assessed in international comparisons based on common quality standards.

Andree Sursock argued for conceptual clarity. It was not clear whether the discussion was about the quality of quality assurance or the quality of higher education. Another question was by whom and what processes would international quality standards be defined?

"In national frameworks, those questions are very thorny and contentious issues. Scale it up to the international level and for me it would be something that would be impossible to decide. I don't know who would have the legitimacy to come up with a set of standards internationally."

Even if international standards were developed and accepted, Sursock argued, they would be so difficult to alter that they would stifle innovation and change in higher education.

"So international standards for higher education would be hard-fought, undesirable and would also block change, and would not be useful for our higher education sector."

There were two key words - quality and standards - which were difficult to understand. One dictionary definition of a standard is something that is established by authority, custom and consent. "For me as an anthropologist, this is a very interesting definition.

"If we consider examples of national quality assurance systems, we find the successful ones have been accepted by institutions and policy-makers because they have had a very good discussion before about how to go about quality assurance."

But global consent for international quality standards would be very difficult to secure. It would not be worth the effort to develop global standards that lack legitimacy.

There is also a danger that, in efforts to comply with international standards, higher education systems could become less relevant to the socio-cultural needs of local communities, leaving local needs under-served.

If the concept of international standards was embraced, there would need to be a generic quality framework describing best practices or competencies, which would allow institutions and countries the flexibility to contextualise standards to suit local needs.

Some conclusions

There was, reported Peter Okebukola, "some consensus built around having robust national quality assurance systems while encouraging flexible international quality standards that will have a hierarchy of spheres of agreement within a framework of distinctiveness".

The development of international quality systems, such as in Europe and Asia, provided hope that global standards had the potential to support quality in higher education.

However, a single set of standards would require unanimity and consensus, would need to recognise the uniqueness of different countries and institutions, and would need to avoid the same standards of excellence for all institutions.

"This is a challenge that quality assurance agencies should address in the coming years."