Avoid a tick-box approach to quality assurance processes

Assessment is a core academic activity and essential component of the learning process. It has as its major aim the enhancement and reinforcement of student learning and allows judgments to be made about the quality and extent of student achievement or performance. It provides a means for students to demonstrate they meet or exceed minimum academic and professional requirements.

Both formative and summative types of assessment are normally used. The former is embedded within the instructional process and aims to provide regular feedback about student progress to aid continuing improvement, while summative assessment is typically conducted at the conclusion of a specific point in instruction.

A case can also be made for the essential role formative and summative methods of assessment occupy in a higher education institution’s academic quality assurance procedure. Formative assessment supports constructive data to inform improvements in prospective performance, while the provision of summative assessments renders findings on past performance.

Accountability and quality improvements

The formative approach represents an internally managed process for continuous quality assurance and improvement. It is a key method for gauging how well an academic programme is performing, inclusive of its structure, quality of teaching, availability and quality of learning resources, accessibility and quality of student academic support, overall student performance and student satisfaction.

Internally driven reviews provide a valuable opportunity for an institution to reflect on programme achievements against established goals, identify strengths to be built on and opportunities for improvement.

Just like students who are provided with useful feedback about how they can improve their work, similarly evidence derived from these internal academic quality assurance assessments is intended to be used within the institution to develop and continuously improve the quality of the curriculum and teaching and learning environment.

The summative method is usually associated with a formal academic accreditation conducted by an external authority and is a key form of quality assurance for accountability purposes.

A higher education institution is expected to demonstrate compliance with a set of standards overseen by an independent quality assurance and regulatory agency. Besides acting as a regulatory authority, the agency’s roles are to protect and enhance the reputation and integrity of higher education nationally and internationally, ensure students are protected and inform the public through published reports of the functioning of higher education institutions. It can also play an advisory role by recommending enhancements and so act as a surrogate catalyst for institutional quality improvements.

Formative internal reviews are often conducted as a prelude to a summative external review. The institution sets out to depict solid and comprehensive evidence and a commitment to academic quality and, at the same time, dedication to continuous quality improvement.

The principal motive then tends to be to demonstrate to the external accrediting authority that the provider is compliant with the expected criteria.

However, academic quality assurance is about much more than compliance with a prescribed set of external standards. Given that external reviews also tend to occur only every five or so years, for real improvement to occur it is imperative that higher education institutions engage in more regular systematic reflections.

There is a difference then in formative assessments predicated on monitoring and honestly reporting the institution’s performance against its plans and advancing quality improvement and internal reviews solely connected to external accountability obligations.

The need for regular reviews

Continuous improvements should be embedded within an institution’s annual planning cycle, supported by a quality management framework which encompasses a suite of policies, regulations, strategies, structures and processes.

While the approach used can be informed by the external regulatory authority’s expectations, there should also be a focus on issues specific to that institution. In other words, a higher education institution should engage in regular reviews propelled by internal needs.

Annual and even mid-year reviews that evaluate performance based on results against institutional targets help drive the process of re-planning. They demonstrate progress made as well as identify improvement actions. Ensuing reports should be shared internally with all relevant stakeholders to facilitate continuous quality improvement.

If higher education institutions execute regular assessments by systematically collecting, analysing, interpreting and communicating progress, then the preparation needed for any externally conducted review is noticeably reduced. It also ensures a more authentic portrayal of institutional achievements to the external agency.

Against a tick-box approach

Something that must be avoided is the development of a compliance culture where higher education institutions predominantly concern themselves with those factors and criteria delineated by the external authority. The result is more one of ticking boxes rather than one of examining the extent of achievement of strategic goals defined by the institution, addressing areas for further improvement and fostering continuous quality enhancement.

The main purpose of academic quality assurance is to analyse strengths and weaknesses and put forward proposals for ongoing improvement. Evidence of attainment is changes made and actions taken that lead to continuous quality improvements that have been propelled by effective evaluation. Both internally and externally conducted quality assurance mechanisms play a part in this intent.

However, higher education institutions have primary responsibility for ensuring systematic regular quality assurance assessments are carried out rather than engaging with the process only as a precursor to an externally authorised undertaking. As such, quality monitoring is a process, not an intermittent one-off exercise, that should be integrated into an institution’s standard planning cycle.

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 Customized Knowledge Solutions in Dubai. She is chair of two higher education academic boards, and invited professor and consultant to universities in Australia, the Pacific region, Southeast Asia and the Middle East.