Internal institutional academic quality assurance matters

The benefits offered by an external agency’s evaluation of an institution’s academic quality are invaluable to that institution. It provides feedback about and authenticates the extent to which the institution has met recognised professional quality standards.

It can expose gaps in academic policies, procedures and guidelines needed to support the design, implementation and review stages of an institution’s academic programme(s).

Current and prospective students, industry groups, the professions and staff want to know that the courses offered meet expected national (and even international) quality standards certified by an independent external process.

However, external evaluations tend to take place only once every four to five years or even up to seven years. A lot can and does happen in that time.

Universities need to formalise the integration of effective regular quality academic reviews into their broader quality assurance processes. They should represent an integral part of an institution’s internal academic planning, accreditation and review process.

Many of us have had the experience that as soon as word is received by an institution that an external appraisal is to take place, there is a flurry of activity, including some retro fitting of practices and data to demonstrate the institution has in fact engaged in continuous quality assurance.

A separate administrative unit within the institution is often charged with responsibility for managing the collection and collation of data and preparation of the report to be issued to the external agency.

Time constraints dictate that those at the centre of the teaching and learning process are minimally if at all involved, yet they are the ones who will be significantly impacted by the external review findings and recommendations.

A continuous process

Developing quality curriculum and programmes should be a continuous process. It is essentially an ongoing cycle of implementation, appraisal, reflection and redevelopment of what is offered to students, based on evidence from staff, students and external stakeholders. The process should be part of an institution’s academic quality assurance system aimed to regularly improve its practices.

There is a difference between evaluation for improvement and evaluation for accountability. Internal institutional quality assurance appraisal is evaluation for improvement.

Well-executed internal quality assurance activity can improve practices. It focuses the planning, implementation and evaluation of curriculum to ensure programmes are designed that:

• Meet the needs of learners, employers and the profession;

• Include appropriate learning outcomes, content, teaching-learning approaches and assessment tasks;

• Support students well; and

• Provide access to appropriate study resources, technology and physical facilities.

It can provide constructive data to the institution to ensure the continued realisation of quality outputs.

It can help chart the relationship between subjects. It can plot how and where the institution’s graduate attributes are included, from the first to final year of the degree.

It can demonstrate how student outcomes and associated assessment activities become increasingly sophisticated in their expectation, from introductory first year to advanced third or fourth year content. And it can help determine if graduates are adequately work-ready.

The ‘end-product’ provided to support the external academic review then legitimately represents a true record of performance and commentary about planned strategies and initiatives to ensure continuous improvement.

What is learnt from regular internal academic reviews can support continuous improvements. Learnings, which must be shared across the institution, include identifying exemplars of good practice; tracing trend data about student load, retention, progression, student satisfaction and student results; pinpointing themes requiring action; and proposing how the university and its academic units might react to these themes to improve curriculum design, delivery and evaluation.

Another key principle of conducting vigorous internal appraisals is collecting a comprehensive evidentiary base that will ably support the external quality assurance activity when due. The end result is a ‘one-stop-shop’ of relevant data that can be used for a multitude of internal and external reporting needs.

Good practice

Whatever approach is taken by an institution, it must be inclusive and represent the different perspectives, expertise and experiences of those engaged in academic activity.

There should also be ownership of changes identified as requiring attention along with opportunity to acknowledge ‘good’ practice and ensure these and actions taken are shared with relevant stakeholders including students.

That essential component of communication to the whole university community about all stages of the process and findings along the way is critical if understanding and ultimately required implementation and improvement is to occur.

One institution’s view of academic quality may vary considerably to another’s, as can the approach they take to quality assurance. It is only right and fair for a public institution to be held accountable for the quality of what it offers. The challenge is to persuasively demonstrate how it contributes as a provider of quality education and to convey to the profession what it can expect its graduates to ‘look like’.

Dr Nita Temmerman has held senior university positions including pro vice-chancellor (academic quality and partnerships) and executive dean in Australia. She is an invited accreditation specialist with the Hong Kong Council for Accreditation of Academic and Vocational Qualifications and international associate with the Center for Learning Innovations and Customised Knowledge Solutions, Dubai. She is chair of two higher education academic boards, invited professor and consultant to universities in Australia, the Pacific region, Southeast Asia and the Middle East.