The multiple challenges facing HE quality assurance

Compared with North America, the United Kingdom and many European countries, almost all aspects of higher education in East Asia since the late 19th century have been rigidly regulated and controlled by central government or colonial powers.

While the quality of the region’s universities has remained consistent, tremendous changes have occurred in higher education since the early 1990s as a result of both global/international factors and national contextual drivers.

Although these factors and drivers have affected quality assurance in individual countries and societies in different ways and to different degrees, similar patterns can be found across the region and similar challenges remain.

Action on quality assurance

Firstly, almost all major countries and societies have introduced the phrase ‘quality assurance’ or ‘quality improvement’ or equivalent terms into higher education.

Although usages and interpretations of these terms may vary depending upon different contexts and over time in a particular country or society, the issue of quality assurance and-or improvement has become one of the top priorities of higher education reform at both a national and institutional level.

More importantly, in addition to traditional practices of assuring the quality of higher education, based mainly on national standards relating to the establishment of universities and colleges, there have emerged an increasing number of new agencies and organisations specifically designated for quality assurance.

In some countries these agencies and organisations are directly affiliated to the ministry of education or ministries at a central level.

For example, China established its Higher Education Evaluation Center of the Ministry of Education in 2004, which has separate legal status. In actuality, however, it is part of the Ministry of Education because its leaders are directly appointed by the ministry and its major budgets also come from the central government.

Second, many countries in the region have built multi-tiered and multi-faceted quality assurance into higher education frameworks. At a regional level, quality assurance frameworks with two separate dimensions have been established in most countries and societies.

On the one hand, traditional patterns of quality assurance, such as standards relating to the establishment of universities and colleges and other regulations determined by the central governments or local authorities, still exist. They assure the minimum quality of universities by ex-ante restrictions.

On the other hand, ex-post evaluations, conducted after a certain period has passed since the completion of a project, have been established. These are often made up of self-assessment, certified and third-party accreditation and evaluation. In most cases, they are concerned with accreditation and evaluation by third-party agencies or incorporated bodies approved by central governments.

Third, with the formation of new frameworks of quality assurance, there has been a clear division of labour in imposing quality assurance activities between different actors, agencies or organisations based on different objectives and with respective criteria.

To illustrate, in Japan only the National Institution for Academic Degrees and Quality Enhancement of Higher Education, or NIAD-QE, is certified to conduct evaluation on all types and levels of higher education institution (including universities, junior colleges, colleges of technology and graduate law schools). Co-existing with this are a number of specialist certified evaluation agencies or organisations that are qualified to implement evaluation in specific higher education institutions.

For example, the Japan University Accreditation Association, or JUAA, and the Japan Institution for Higher Education Evaluation, or JIHEE, are certified to evaluate both universities and junior colleges, but neither is certified to evaluate colleges of technology. The JIHEE cannot evaluate graduate law schools either.

The Japan Association for College Accreditation is only responsible for undertaking evaluation of junior colleges, whereas graduate law schools are only evaluated by the NIAD-QE, the Japan Law Foundation and JUAA.

In addition, the performance-based evaluation of all national university corporations and inter-university research institute corporations is solely undertaken by the National University Corporation Evaluation Committee within the ministry of education, which focuses on assessing their attainment of mid-term objectives and annual plans.

Central control

Fourth, the central governments of China, Japan and South Korea, as well as other East Asian countries, still maintain powerful leadership or exercise strong supervision over individual corporations and private institutions in terms of approving or closing a corporate entity.

Central governments or local authorities like the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China also play a prominent and significant role in creating policy and shaping new frameworks of quality assurance of higher education in almost all countries and regions in East Asia.

In Japan, the 2004 Law of School Education requires all higher education institutions to accept external evaluation by certified agencies or organisations every seven years based on their self-evaluation.

Although there are options for universities and colleges to be evaluated by a public or a private quality assurance agency, including a third-party or an incorporated foundation, all the agencies or organisations in charge of external evaluation of individual universities and colleges are either directly established by the government or are required to be government-certified.

Finally, the emergence and development of all the existing frameworks of higher education quality assurance in most countries in East Asia have also been tremendously affected by Western philosophy and practice.

Although it appears that the American model of quality assurance has come to exert an increasingly predominant influence due to the origins and traditions of higher education in the region, as well as present administrative and higher education structures, other Western patterns have also shaped the quality assurance of higher education in East Asia.

For instance, the basic mechanisms of quality assurance in both South Korea and Taiwan prior to the early 1990s were evidently affected by the Japanese style; the impact from the United Kingdom on Malaysia and Hong Kong is considerable; while the influence from France on the exercise of external evaluation on national university corporations in Japan cannot be denied.

Adapting to new challenges

It is evident, however, that many challenges and issues remain to be solved in the quality assurance of higher education in East Asia.

First of all, it seems that current frameworks of quality assurance of higher education in a number of countries and societies cannot be applied to every sector and all types of higher education institution.

In China, since the late 1990s, non-government higher education institutions and higher technical and vocational colleges have expanded significantly in terms of their numbers and student enrolments; however, at a national level, there are only two broad kinds of evaluation systems.

One is specifically designated for evaluating all national and public universities, and the other is for evaluating four-year institutions which are newly established and administered by local authorities.

Although the share of the number of undergraduate students in the non-government sector accounted for nearly one fourth of the totals in 2015, no similar evaluation has yet been imposed on the sector. Furthermore, several evaluation exercises constitute bureaucratic overload and may have an impact on autonomy and cost.

Additional issues concerning quality assurance in higher education in East Asia that remain to be addressed include:
  • • Very little participation by students in the quality assurance activities, compared to the United States and many European countries.
  • • As major strategies are developed by the ministry of education and relevant activities are externally imposed in many countries and societies in East Asia, it appears that the frameworks are not embedded in a real institutional ‘quality culture’.
  • • Too many complicated quality assurance frameworks have caused evaluation fatigue.
  • • Further quality assurance activities should be conducted at an international dimension.
If East Asian countries want to enhance the international competitiveness of their higher education, it is necessary to introduce international standards of assessment or evaluation to their national quality assurance mechanisms, especially in some hard sciences such as engineering, architecture and medical science.

International experts should also be invited to participate in individual national evaluation activities.

Furthermore, quality assurance mechanisms need to be more independent of government through a real third-party evaluation so that higher education can be more accountable.

Futao Huang is a professor at the Research Institute for Higher Education at Hiroshima University, Japan, and co-investigator at the ESRC/HEFCE-funded Centre for Global Higher Education based at the UCL Institute of Education, United Kingdom. Email: