Towards better quality higher education

As higher education systems expand and diversify, a potential decline in the quality of higher education has become a growing concern worldwide.

Numerous indications of an emerging ‘quality crisis’ in higher education are being felt across the globe, including high dropout rates at the early stages of higher education, increasing rates of graduate unemployment and a general perception of lowering academic standards.

Internal quality assurance

Within this context, many countries have created quality assurance mechanisms. These generally appeared at the national level first, through the creation of agencies, but are also increasingly found at the level of the higher education institutions themselves.

When first introduced, quality assurance mechanisms in higher education institutions were mainly driven by external bodies that regularly assessed higher education institutions and-or their programmes based on a pre-established quality threshold.

More recently, institutions have themselves developed internal mechanisms for ensuring quality, first in response to the requirements of external bodies, and later with a view to strengthening their internal management.

In light of this development, UNESCO’s International Institute for Educational Planning launched an international research project focusing on effective internal quality assurance, or IQA, solutions for higher education systems around the world. The project includes eight case studies from different regions. An international survey was also administered to investigate the state of the art of IQA in a broad sample of universities worldwide.

The overall goal of this project is to illustrate approaches and options that can be considered as good principles and a source of inspiration to guide other higher education institutions in the design and development of their own IQA systems.

The research project is based on a multi-stakeholder approach comprising a survey of both academic and administrative staff’s perceptions of IQA, as well as in-depth interviews with leadership, academic administrators and students.

How effective is IQA and what influences its success?

The results of the research project showed that in the institutions studied, IQA has helped to initiate a large set of reforms, in particular in the domain of teaching and learning where the introduction of IQA has generally improved the internal coherence of study programmes as well as their alignment with labour market needs.

In addition, thanks to IQA, management processes have been streamlined and better integrated with data analysis and evaluation. IQA has also motivated universities to strengthen their management information systems and improve their ability to make evidence-based decisions by collecting survey data from internal and external stakeholders.

In terms of the conditions which influence the successful implementation and functioning of IQA systems, the research data showed that there were a number of common factors for success, although they largely depended on the context of each individual institution.

Overall, participating universities indicated that the effectiveness of the IQA system relied heavily on the level of awareness and involvement of students and staff in the institution’s IQA processes and tools. Staff and students, however, tended to view IQA as being management’s responsibility.

The study also found that the involvement of students and staff was minimised due to a perceived lack of feedback or follow-up from certain IQA tools, such as course evaluations or student satisfaction surveys.

Finally, the data from certain tools was not always used to maximum effect by the intended audience, such as the results of graduate tracer studies which were predominantly used by management rather than academics who were in charge of the adaptation of study programmes.

“It is only through an organised and regular internal dialogue on quality, often called closing the loop, that IQA can contribute to the shaping of a quality culture, which is the ultimate purpose of IQA,” says Oliver Vettori, one of the case study authors, who is in charge of quality management at the Vienna University of Economics and Business.

How is IQA viewed by academics and students?

The success of an IQA system largely depends on the extent to which it is embraced by staff and students. The findings from the International Institute for Educational Planning’s research indicate that perceptions of IQA vary greatly between academics, administrative staff and students.

Overall, students showed surprisingly favourable attitudes towards IQA. They tended to see IQA as a tool to enhance their employability through the improvement of the quality of their university education. They insisted, however, on the fact that they would like to be more involved in discussions on how to improve quality in their institutions.

Administrative staff also viewed IQA in a generally positive light. As they also carry a higher burden for its implementation, they insisted on the need to make additional human resources available to support IQA-related tasks.

Academic staff on the other hand showed themselves to be somewhat sceptical, with a number among those interviewed indicating that they see IQA as a managerial tool. Academics highlighted that the benefits of the different processes were, for many, not immediately obvious.

There is therefore a clear need for leadership to communicate the purposes and benefits of IQA to all university stakeholders and to highlight the positive effects of IQA for the whole academic community.

Michaela Martin is a programme specialist at UNESCO’s International Institute for Educational Planning. This is based on her recent presentation at the Comparative and International Education Society conference in Vancouver, Canada, in March.