No easy way to clarify higher education quality

After a few sparkling decades, has the higher education quality movement sputtered and died, or has the field simply grown in complexity and significance with the overall enlargement of the field? This is an area in which research has struggled to keep pace with policy, let alone practice.

In our new Research Handbook, a swathe of global experts spotlight how to grow the science and substance of this field as an essential plank underpinning the future growth and contribution of higher education.

Specialised knowledge and expertise are increasingly essential to the global economic competitiveness of firms, cities, nations and entire regions. This transformation has been accompanied by the dramatic worldwide expansion of higher education.

These two trends have prompted anxiety among students, families and governments that higher education delivers what it promises, justifying the considerable resources invested. These concerns coincide with grumbling about globalisation and the realisation that some of our underpinning assumptions about higher education – that it would bring heightened personal opportunity and prosperity – do not necessarily hold true for everyone.

Embedding a quality culture or box ticking?

Traditional approaches to assessing higher education have relied on collegiality, expert judgment and peer review. There has been a strong emphasis on quality improvement and quality enhancement and the promotion and embedding of a quality culture.

Norms of academic-professional self-regulation and self-governance, with ownership and responsibility resting with autonomous higher education institutions, prevail. But such practice has been ridiculed as too process-oriented and box-ticking and insufficiently focused on consequential and generalisable outcomes.

Such critique is not isolated to a particular country or geographic region; rather, it seems to be global. The growth and expansion of global university rankings is but one illustration of the salience and the contested nature of higher education quality, performance and productivity.

Big data and an international market for detailed and purportedly authoritative information has emerged and commercial interests pursue this market aggressively. The authority of the academy is being successfully challenged by different instruments with multi-stakeholder involvement and new technologies that arguably democratise access to information and the debate itself.

So, are prevailing approaches to quality still ‘fit for purpose’?

A perplexing picture

After decades of discussion involving many thousands of people from around the world, there seems no simple way of clarifying higher education quality, performance and accountability, nor distinguishing between these elusive yet very important ideas.

Herein lies an enormous problem of worldwide concern. If quality is ephemeral and subjective, then really anything goes. If there is no agreement on the aspects of performance that matter most then inefficiencies can abound. If accountabilities are malleable and contestable, then the loudest or most powerful voices control the discourse.

There are probably four main issues.
  • • Quality concerns circle around notions of what makes for good education. There is less certainty, however, about how institutions can ensure quality. Education quality usually refers to teaching and learning, although it also refers to research, engagement and institutional leadership. Yet, everyone has their own perspective, evidenced by the different approaches, methodologies and indicators. Surely institutions and professionals who both privilege and produce knowledge and expertise can do better than such vapid and porous relativism?

  • • Performance and productivity concerns focus on outcomes relative to inputs, rather than what goes on in-between. Talk of ‘productivity’ raises questions about the role and activities of faculty, challenging traditional assumptions about the self-regulated nature of the profession. Broader discussions circle around how effectively students are learning, what they are achieving and how personnel, institutions and the systems overall help students to succeed.

  • • Assuring value and impact is the new mandate for higher education, looking at how people participate and what they expect in terms of economic growth, human capital and personal success and lifestyle. Political developments in many parts of the world highlight many gaps between universities and society. To what extent is higher education contributing to these problems, for example, by acting as a gatekeeper? And what are its responsibilities to resolving these tensions?

  • • Accountability is critical and this ground is shifting. Traditional mechanisms focused on quality assurance and research excellence. New concerns arise not merely because of transactional or financial concerns, but because of the sector’s role in national and global architectures. Too often the focus is on the public sphere. But accountability concerns apply to private institutions as well, including those run for profit. So, what are the best mechanisms for ensuring and assuring high-quality contributions of education and research?
Beyond uncertainty?

Issues of quality, performance and accountability touch every country and higher education institution. Today’s discourse has broadened beyond institutional boundaries to consider these matters at system and even cross-national levels.

There is a perennial tension between collegial, commercial and governmental forces. Academic standards contend with commercial strategies and politically espoused public interests in this newly contested terrain. Rational analysts fail to find sensible ways for substantiating public investments with private returns or enabling valid (cross-national) comparisons.

Indeed, the failure to measure important outcomes in any generalisable and consensually accepted way, that also enables international comparisons, stymies the kind of econometric insights that have played such an important reforming role in other sectors.

An engorged plethora of perplexing questions remain. Should public universities act differently to private institutions? In what landscape do institutions operate? What are good governance arrangements? How does ‘autonomy’ play out in a world of precarious balance sheets and contingent labour?

What is the appropriate balance between accountability and autonomy? How can we best understand and assess higher education as a ‘public good’? Will techno-zealots ever deliver on their project of ‘revolutionising’ higher education with innovative ‘solutions’?

Such hefty uncertainties are unlikely to be resolved easily, yet they do inject important impetus to practice, policy and research.

Ellen Hazelkorn is an education consultant at BH Associates, Hamish Coates is professor at the Institute of Education at Tsinghua University, China, and Alexander C McCormick is senior associate director at the Center for Postsecondary Research at Indiana University Bloomington, USA. The Research Handbook on Quality, Performance and Accountability in Higher Education attempts to unpick these pressing topics from a global perspective, bringing together contributions from scholars, policy analysts and practitioners from 20 countries in 43 chapters.