Quality assurance and innovation: A delicate balancing act

Higher education is about learning, teaching, scholarship and research and a significant obligation on its providers is to continuously assure and enhance the quality of these areas.

Most universities have their own internal quality assurance and self-regulation processes that are a regular part of their operations. The result of regular internal reviews and associated findings is the institution adapting practices or making changes to existing systems as part of continuous quality improvement.

The internal processes are complemented by a process of accreditation undertaken by an external regulatory agency, usually every five to seven years, to determine if appropriate standards in the delivery of teaching, learning, scholarship and research have been met.

The principal purpose of these national regulatory frameworks is to assure and ensure quality in the sector against a set of prescribed minimum standards. Such regulation aims to protect the reputation of the higher education sector, which is to the benefit of all providers and stakeholders.

Higher education institutions can find themselves in a delicate balancing act of endeavouring to meet compliance standards while also leading innovative teaching-learning practices, advancing novel research and responding to change in a progressively diverse workplace environment.

Quality assurance versus innovation

Sector regulation is a complex area and is not necessarily dealt with in the same way in all countries. In some it is still quite new and very much input driven. This approach is inclined towards external accreditors assessing the institution’s ‘state of play’, ie, what it has in place.

This invariably includes examining its governance structure, its strategic plan which contains its mission and goals, the institution’s policies and systems, how it manages academic matters and the financial, physical and human resource aspects of its operation. The focus is more on how well the institution harmonises with the specified standards rather than on what and how well the institution has achieved its goals, ie, its outputs.

This input-based approach, driven by accreditors and the accrediting regulator, views regulations as a fixed set of requirements with quite prescriptive conditions. In such jurisdictions, the external agency takes a more interventionist approach to quality assurance, making the notion of fostering diversity in the sector less evident, with the sector looking progressively homogenous.

When external accreditation is treated and viewed in this rigid way, the effect on the institution is to constrain its ability to make timely changes and-or to introduce new ideas.

Yet responding to and seizing new opportunities and being change leaders are all important functions of a university. We are all too aware of higher education being criticised for not responding in a timely manner to societal changes, or adapting quickly to new ideas and expediting processes for coping with change.

They are often accused of not keeping pace with broader social and economic demands and the shifting needs of learners, employers and the professions. But this is made all the more difficult when institutions are hindered in their proposal to adapt their operation opportunely to meet such demands.

Of course, the entire external accreditation process is very much reliant on the make-up of the accrediting panel assigned to conduct the accreditation exercise and its interpretation of the expected standards. One panel’s understanding and application of the regulations can differ, sometimes quite markedly, from another panel’s interpretation, resulting in quite dissimilar results for exactly the same accreditation exercise.

Factors such as the panel members’ own knowledge of and past experiences with accreditation as well as their understanding about how to apply the standards and even their level of support for the process can all influence the outcome.

The tension between innovation and compliance is also made obvious when an institution seeks to introduce something novel, but the external regulator has not yet established rules and-or expected standards for that particular novel practice.

This was made most evident in the past couple of years when higher education institutions had to shift quickly to an online mode of delivery, a very new experience for some, but where, in some cases, the external regulator had not yet designed the expected structures for ‘good’ online delivery.

Beyond the status quo

National consistency in regulatory requirements is important. There can be no question that higher education must ensure its operation is consistent with quality standards and that it pays attention to assuring the quality of both its input factors and its outcomes. But its mission must be to promote not only quality, but also diversity and innovation, something that superfluous increases in compliance demands can certainly stifle.

The sector does not want to be constrained by regulations that suppress a willingness and opportunity to test new practices and instead simply perpetuate the status quo.

The agenda of external accrediting authorities should at all times be clear and sincere and their conduct fair-minded and reasonable. Their degree of influence over the future of higher education learning and teaching, and even research, should not be underestimated. With this in mind the process should allow for and accommodate and not hinder innovation and diversity.

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.