Shared principles of HE quality gain global support

A set of shared principles on how to define quality in higher education is gaining support among stakeholders in multiple countries, and a plan is in place to create cross-border opportunities for cooperation in matters of quality assurance and accreditation.

At a conference last week on quality assurance in tertiary education, organisers invited attendees to sign a "memorandum of affiliation" that would create a foundation for national and regional quality assurance and accreditation bodies worldwide to work together in their efforts to internationalise higher education.

Judith Eaton, president of the US-based Council for Higher Education Accreditation and its offshoot, CHEA International Quality Group, or CIQG, emphasised that signatories would commit only to agreeing that they endorse the principles developed by CIQG and published last summer.

The seven principles, developed with input from 19 experts in 10 countries representing six of the world's seven continents, are CIQG's response to the growing global interconnectedness of higher education, fuelled by student mobility, faculty exchanges and research collaboration, cross-border partnerships and the potential promise of online or web-based tools to deliver higher education to even the most remote corners of the earth.

Much of the conference was devoted to developing how the principles might guide policy-making at the national, regional and international levels, and how the diversity of stakeholders might build on common ground. Already, some conference presenters said the principles mesh with and enhance efforts to develop local goals.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations or ASEAN, for example, had previously identified four areas of consensus around quality issues. "We mapped the seven [from CIQG] with what we had [at ASEAN], and Bingo!" said Concepcion Pijano, executive director of the Philippine Accrediting Association of Schools, Colleges and Universities and member of an ASEAN task force.

"Now, we're all on the same page." Her hope is that the Philippines government will use the principles as benchmarks for quality assurance agencies.

The principles also can strengthen institutions that seek international recognition, said Nadia Badrawi, vice-president of the Arab Network for Quality Assurance in Higher Education who has been presenting the principles at international conferences. "Every country, every culture is looking [to build] their reputation," she said.

The principles themselves can be summed up in less than 150 words. The document represents a shared understanding of educational quality while also acknowledging the unique characteristics of any one country, geographic region or culture.

The seven principles aim to:
    1) focus on the responsibility of higher education providers to assure and achieve quality,
    2) make student learning the central focus,
    3) define quality in terms of how it meets the needs of society, engenders public confidence and sustains public trust,
    4) place governments in a supporting role,
    5) encourage commitment to evidence-based accountability,
    6) demand that quality assurance and accreditation bodies take the lead role in implementing processes, tools, benchmarks and measures of learning, and
    7) call for flexibility, creativity and innovation.
Promoting excellence or setting standards?

The principles are intended “to inspire an ongoing quest for effectiveness and excellence”, says Stamenka Uvalic-Trumbic, senior adviser on international affairs to CHEA and CIQG. That leaves open the question of whether quality assurance agencies should be promoting excellence or setting minimum standards.

Barbara Brittingham, president of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, Commission on Institutions of Higher Education in the US, likened the dilemma to that of reviews for restaurants. "The health inspector can keep the bugs out of the kitchen, but that doesn’t really get you a better meal," she said. She recommended that the emphasis be on quality improvement rather than policing.

Another unresolved question is whether quality can be defined. "People look to the United States as a model – Stanford and Harvard – but is that relevant for, say, Mauritius?" said Chet Haskell, a US-based international consultant. "We’re trying to figure out how you deal with local institutions in a global context."

At the conference, experts from different parts of the world explored each of the principles from their perspective.

Angela Yung-chi Hou, a professor at Fu Jen University in Taiwan and vice-president of the Asia-Pacific Quality Network, said the level of faculty engagement "will determine the success of implementation of the whole system" and that higher education providers must "furnish support and infrastructure to help faculty and staff understand their role in quality improvement."

Badr Aboul-Ela, director of the Commission for Academic Accreditation in the United Arab Emirates, called attention to rising numbers of for-profit higher education institutions in developing countries, where “governments have been less able to support the escalating needs for higher education” and “no regulatory authority or rigorous standards exist".

In a nod to the diversity of higher education systems across the globe, Eaton stressed that the principles are "not about setting standards,... any kind of regulation or any kind of review". An affiliation would signal only that "you're saying, 'We would like to work with you. We think the principles make sense'," she said.