Can quality assurance remain effective into the future?

In this and other publications, we read almost daily of the ways in which higher education institutions and providers are changing and need to change to effectively serve students. We discuss the emergence of alternative providers and alternative credentials and the urgent need to focus on social justice and equity issues. We focus on vocational education and training and the ways in which these need to be re-imagined.

But what of the future of quality assurance – our key tool to assure that higher education moves forward with such changes while preserving and enhancing the quality of what we do?

This was the topic of our third ‘Virtual International Conversation’ – a virtual meeting of a small group of higher education and quality assurance experts that we host periodically. Our conversation was conducted as a mock debate as our experts considered this question: “Is quality assurance effective and reliable as a means of assuring and enhancing quality in higher education now and in the future?”

The debate quickly revolved around the core issue of the capacity for change in quality assurance as it was agreed that the future effectiveness and reliability of quality assurance relies, first and foremost, on this.

There are different views, but the important thing is not so much which view may be an accurate predictor of the future. It is about what we can learn and apply from each of the perspectives for the future.

Yes … Quality assurance can and will change

Those who are optimistic, even confident, that quality assurance can change and remain effective offered several arguments. First, they point to history. Quality assurance has a solid track record when it comes to its capacity to change. In many countries, as higher education institutions have grown and diversified, so has quality review of offerings and structures.

This includes, for example, the emergence and growth of distance learning and the establishment, in a number of countries, of institutions that are private and, in some instances, for-profit. It involved the enormous expansion of access to higher education, especially in the latter part of the 20th century.

Most recently, quality assurance organisations have met the multiple challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic, providing leadership in sustaining quality in this difficult time.

Second, they point to the current variation in quality assurance as implemented in countries and regions around the world. The argument here is that, although the basic structure and operation of quality assurance are similar around the world (for example, based on self-study, peer review, formative evaluation, standards and quality enhancement), the actual implementation has varied significantly.

This combination of holding onto core structure and operation yet accommodating great variation in expectations of quality based on national and regional interests and frameworks is a powerful signal of the capacity to change.

For example, what counts as ‘academic freedom’ in quality assurance standards varies from country to country. In some countries, the emphasis on student learning outcomes is central to judging quality. In others, the emphasis on success with enhancement is central. Yet, basic practices remain quite similar across the world.

Third, those who affirmed quality assurance’s capacity for change pointed to the history of external challenges to which it has effectively responded. It’s not just that higher education and quality assurance change; the context in which both quality assurance and higher education operate changes – described as a “world in flux” that also reflects enormous complexity.

Experts pointed to, for instance, the shifting role of government that, at times, uses a light touch with regard to quality assurance and, at other times, has a heavy hand, even using quality assurance to steer government policy, such as insisting on valuing vocational education or emphasising return on investment even at the price of diminishing the liberal arts.

These experts also point to both higher education and quality assurance needing to adapt to the current world of extraordinary political unrest and polarisation. This includes social media, with its powerful and immediate impact and capacity to carry transparency to sometimes unhelpful extremes. We need only to reflect on how higher education and quality assurance have sustained themselves in, for example, Hong Kong, Afghanistan, Hungary and, most recently, Ukraine.

So, those who affirm the capacity of quality assurance to change point to three factors. These are:

• A history of success with change;

• A balance of adherence to core processes yet the variation and flexibility in implementation that quality assurance had demonstrated for many years; and

• The resilience and success of quality assurance in meeting ever-evolving external challenges.

No … Quality assurance is unlikely to change

Those who are sceptical, if not negative, about quality assurance’s capacity to change focus on the limitations posed by its longstanding structure and operation – in contrast to those who, as indicated above, focus on its flexibility and responsiveness.

Sceptics argue that quality assurance as we know it has been effective and valuable, but it has run its course and, likely, will be replaced because it has reached the limits of its ability to alter the current model.

The horse and buggy mode of transportation of the 19th century did not transform into the 20th century internal combustion engine automobile (or 21st century electric vehicle). It was replaced. Quality assurance, as stated by one participant, is outliving its usefulness.

First, quality assurance as we know it was built for the review of a 20th century model of higher education, a model that is fundamentally being altered in the 21st century. Quality assurance is not configured for the emerging and new model of higher education.

The 20th century model was dominated by traditional, predominantly ground-based and time-based instruction, an emphasis on meritocracy, a focus on reputation as a prime indicator of quality and perhaps overemphasis on the value of a degree in contrast to the value of intellectual development.

As we all know, this model is changing, in some places dramatically. In the 21st century, traditional institutions are now accompanied by and, at times, compete with alternative providers such as Coursera, FutureLearn, and edX as well as corporations such as Google and Microsoft. Micro-credentials are quickly gaining prominence, if not becoming preferred, in comparison to traditional degrees.

Employers are coming to prefer their own assessments to determine quality, not those of quality assurance. Students are more powerful. Remote learning has upended the dominance of traditional classroom-based instruction. Concern for access and equity is challenging meritocracy in many places. As one of our participants said about the United States, “...the creative corner of higher education is outside traditional institutions”.

Second, the sceptics point out that a key goal of the current form of quality assurance – to at least limit or even eliminate substandard higher education performance through quality improvement – has been substantially (admittedly not entirely) achieved. Given this welcome development, the current form of quality assurance may no longer be needed and is not worth the current investment.

This improvement of higher education provision around the world is reflected in the welcome development that a barrier has been lowered for millions of students who are now able to pursue their education in many countries, no longer limited by questions about the quality of institutions in their home country.

Such international mobility is an indicator of the confidence that higher education institutions across many countries have in the core quality of each other’s activities. Quality institutions do not want to accept students from substandard institutions.

Third, the primary “customer” for quality assurance is changing and the structure and operation of quality assurance has yet to address this, and perhaps will not. It was created primarily to serve higher education institutions that would, in turn, successfully serve students. Today, the public and government are the primary customers of quality assurance, although higher education remains important. These newer customers are sceptical that their needs are being met.

Quality assurance is not particularly effective in its public-facing efforts. We see this in the continuing public demands for return on investment for students as the most important ‘product’ of quality assurance, not the primary emphasis on enhancement at the heart of quality assurance.

We see this in the oft-stated government concern that quality assurance is not meeting society’s needs, coupled with growing government demands for accountability from institutions either superseding the influence of quality assurance review or ignoring it.

So, quality assurance does not have the capacity for change for three reasons. These are:

• Quality assurance was built for a 20th century form of higher education, not the emerging 21st century;

• Quality assurance has substantially achieved its key goal to reduce or eliminate substandard higher education in many places and there is a declining need to invest in these efforts; and

• The primary customer of quality assurance is no longer higher education but a public and government that are sceptical of continuing to invest resources and confidence in quality assurance efforts.

A commitment to change

A final note. As one of our participants said – there is truth in both positions. We have yet to see if quality assurance can change or if it has outlived its usefulness.

However, our virtual conversation can serve as both an important reminder and a warning. The reminder is that, however successful quality assurance has been, it must be committed to change in order to sustain itself. The warning is that, absent change, the most likely future for quality assurance as we know it is obsolescence.

Judith S Eaton is president emeritus of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) in the United States. Stamenka Uvalic-Trumbic is former head of higher education at UNESCO and former advisor to the CHEA president. This article is based on the third of a series of virtual conversations among international experts on higher education and quality assurance initiated by the authors.