Against a managerialist approach to higher education

Universities worldwide are increasingly under pressure to demonstrate their educational quality through performance-oriented evaluation procedures. But how do academics and students understand the concept of quality and what is their experience of quality evaluation?

Current quality evaluation in England focuses on institutional compliance and academic performativity rather than on individual academics’ and students’ practice of learning and teaching.

This approach assumes that the outcome of students’ learning depends on the management of academics’ practice and the support provided by universities. It downplays students’ responsibility in learning, ignoring that learning is an individual activity and that students’ commitment to learning is as important as the input from academics and the university.

Furthermore, it does not consider the development needs of academics and students. According to Goodhart's law, when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.

When teaching becomes judged by how students feel, academics will feel obliged to sacrifice high standards of subject knowledge and to reduce the intellectual challenges students need to experience in order to achieve a higher level of student satisfaction.

This will lead to a potential loss of student learning capability; a loss among academics of confidence in their work; and lack of trust on the part of managers in the trustworthiness of academics.

Quality as a virtue of professional practice

A quality education is a shared effort of three key stakeholders: academics, universities and students. Students need to take responsibility for their own learning, as to teach is to support students to learn, but not necessarily to achieve it.

The notion of quality will become a trap when used mainly to comply with pre-determined standards and performance criteria.

Quality only becomes possible if used as an enabling force. This will involve a people-driven approach to developing quality as a virtue of professional practice, which enables academics and students to self-evaluate their work and to improve upon that.

Quality as a virtue of professional practice is a matter of personal ability and willingness to govern one’s individual learning and teaching in accordance with values and commitments. It is beneficial to those who pursue it, as the nature of virtue makes its possessor a happy or flourishing person.

It can be achieved through developing students’ capability to learn, rebuilding trust in academic professionalism and improving quality evaluation systems to increase academics’ and students’ commitment to teaching and learning.

Student capabilities

There is a need to develop student capabilities to let students comprehend the role they play in achieving successful learning.

Capabilities here refer to students’ beliefs, thoughts and personal dispositions. This is because students’ perceived importance of learning affects their intentions and efforts towards achieving learning goals.

Academic professionalism

An emphasis on the performativity of academics has shifted the focus on academics’ subject expertise to technical aspects of teaching and classroom management in quality evaluation.

The moral aspect of academic professionalism, such as confidence, intellectual stimulation and passion for a subject, has been ignored. As philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre argues, the public will lose confidence in a profession if its moral dilemmas appear to be insoluble.

The academic profession needs to clarify the roles of academics in supporting students to learn and demand space for academics’ professional development and the enhancement of their subject expertise.

Refining quality evaluation

The outcome-driven approach of quality evaluation has not produced tangible improvements in teaching and learning.

This, together with the rise of online learning and the use of social media, will encourage students to evaluate the quality of their university education in an unofficial way. For example, Google review has become a popular approach for students to comment freely about their study experiences.

Free online review raises questions about whether official quality evaluations are cost effective for the public. Quality evaluation thus needs to be less bureaucratic and move away from acting as a mechanism of state surveillance. It needs to help motivate academics and students to pursue excellence and continuous improvement.

The first way would be to involve grassroots academic staff in the design and implementation of quality evaluation mechanisms and to stress academics’ responsibility in setting and monitoring academic standards for evaluation purposes.

Secondly, we need to foster a culture of self-regulation of teaching through academics examining their own practices, coming up with ideas as to how to improve their teaching and learning and putting these ideas into practice.

Thirdly, we should consider using a peer-based method of recognition and reward as motivational forces for improvement.

Fourthly, we need to acknowledge the need to improve the practice of teaching and learning through a network approach which supports peer recognition and review within disciplines and internationally.

Dr Ming Cheng is Senior Lecturer at the School of Education and Lifelong Learning in the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom. She is author of Quality in Higher Education: Developing a virtue of professional practice, published by Sense Publishers.