Changing world ‘needs new kind of quality assurance’

“Same Same But Different,” a phrase rooted in Asian culture, became the informal mantra for attendees of the CHEA International Quality Group’s annual meeting last week in Washington, DC, reflecting both the growing importance of higher education across all regions of the world and the rapidly evolving sense of what a good college experience actually looks like.

Governments are raising expectations for their higher education systems even as they reduce public funding.

New forms of education delivery and assessment are emerging that are up-ending the traditional emphasis by accreditation agencies on physical resources and time spent in class. And rankings, no stranger to US academic systems, have become a global phenomenon, ratcheting up the stakes for universities.

“Higher education is facing turbulent times and nothing is the way it was,” says Stemanka Uvalic-Trumbic, senior adviser on international affairs for the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. More than ever before, she says, “there is a need for quality assurance, but maybe a different kind of quality assurance”.

As for who should be responsible for this new kind of quality, “the path is still blurry”, she says.

Nevertheless, efforts are underway worldwide to address the sometimes dramatic transformation taking place, to develop new tools for learning and accountability, and to make it easier for students, faculty and institutions to collaborate across borders.

About 350 higher education experts representing more than 34 countries registered for a pair of annual conferences organised by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, or CHEA, and its International Quality Group, CIQG.

The overall message: A number of trends, including rising costs, increasing enrolments and student mobility, stiffer cross-border competition and growing public scrutiny, are driving new pressures on quality assurance. And it’s happening at a time when an increasingly global economy demands a well-prepared workforce.

“Higher education is just too important not to be delivered well,” said Carolyn Campbell, a senior consultant with the UK-based Observatory on Borderless Education. “Everybody wants confidence in their universities and the abilities of its graduates. But the context is changing.”

Whose responsibility?

Higher education systems once enjoyed what conference organisers called “the days of splendid isolation”, but the rapid proliferation of institutions, traditional and non-traditional, has prompted greater government scrutiny.

A review of global trends by Jamil Salmi, a tertiary education expert who has provided policy advice to government and university leaders in about 90 countries for more than two decades, found that governments in a number of countries – including Albania, Romania, Colombia, Kenya and Ethiopia – closed down universities in the past few years due to concerns about quality.

In Chile, a rector and former accreditation official were jailed under accusations of fraud and conflict of interest. Meanwhile, the government of Yemen last year stopped financing scholarships for students enrolled in private institutions in Malaysia, his research found.

Salmi also noted challenges faced by governments and quality assurance systems as universities adapt to dramatic changes in how teaching and learning occurs.

A 2014 higher education law in Peru, for example, established a professional regulatory agency that authorises new institutions to operate, while also placing strict requirements “that seem to be out of sync” with recent advances in distance learning and online education.

US efforts

In the United States, the Department of Education, which oversees disbursement of billions of dollars of federal student aid, has offered to waive statutory requirements – some of which were established as far back as 1965 – so some universities can experiment with alternative forms of assessment, including competency-based measures and evidence of prior learning. It has invited 82 institutions to participate.

Non-traditional higher education providers also are developing alternative models of educational delivery and assessment. Kaplan University, a for-profit company, is preparing to launch its Open College, which would enable students to demonstrate evidence of learning while drawing from a range of educational providers, including massive open online courses and open educational resources.

While it’s not clear whether or how quality assurance agencies have the capacity to adapt or respond, US policy analysts generally agree that something has to change.

“I don’t think current accrediting groups would know” how to adjust their practices, says Ben Miller, higher education research director at New America Foundation, a US think-tank. “Once an institution becomes entrenched, it’s very hard to get it to reinvent itself.”

Rankings and ratings

A growing demand for accountability has forced institutions to make more information available publicly, which has opened the door for additional challenges.

“It’s not possible to talk about quality assurance and not mention rankings,” Campbell said. Ironically, she added, the greater transparency in higher education “is quite often used and abused by the rankers”.

A common criticism of global rankings, such as Academic Ranking of World Universities by Shanghai Jiao Tong University, QS World University Rankings by Quacquarelli Symonds in the UK, and THE World University Rankings by Times Higher Education in the UK, is their emphasis on research universities, assumptions about excellence, and hierarchical presentations of quality that is summed up in a single score.

In the United States, the Obama administration is developing a ratings system that would act more as a benchmarking tool than a ranking.

U-Multirank, launched in 2013 by the European Union, also rates universities based on a broader array of performance indicators drawn from publicly available sources. Universities receive a score, such as an A, B or C, in a variety of categories.

“It’s not possible to meaningfully identify the world’s top 100 or 200 universities,” said Don Westerheijden, senior research associate with the Center for Higher Education Policy Studies in the Netherlands. The centre developed the system, which last year produced indicators for about 850 universities in 70 countries. About 100 institutions received a significant number of high scores – but no institutions received an A across all categories, he said.

Still, a debate over the relative merits of rankings and ratings continues. The African Union Commission for example, has developed a ratings system in part to promote a culture of ongoing quality improvement in higher education. But in Nigeria, even as institutions with low ratings improved, those with higher ratings grew “too complacent”, said Peter Okebukola, president of Global University Network for Innovation – Africa.

Nigerian higher education officials prefer rankings, which Okebukola said “stimulates competition and fosters growth”.

As innovation in higher education continues, and as more students, parents and employers demand accountability, the hunger for quantitative evidence of quality is likely to remain.

“Measures like rankings and ratings have continued to strengthen their foothold,” says Rahul Choudaha of World Education Services, a New York-based non-profit research organisation.

“The scope of work of quality assurance agencies is becoming more complicated and conflicted. It is somewhat in a state of identity crisis and there is no quick-fix. It will require collaborative effort.”