It’s the Quality, stupid…..

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12 december 2011 | When implementing quality systems in HE "it turned out that external agencies were staffed by typical auditors, so that only the result of the audits counted and not the story behind them." NVAO Chairman Karl Dittrich sets out his vision of "a culture of quality" to counter this.

At the sixth European Quality Assurance Forum (EQAF) on ‘Qualityand Trust: at the heart of what we do’ the Dutch president of thebinational Accreditation Council for Flanders and the Netherlandsanalyzed why all too often there are tensions between these keyconcepts of trust and quality assurance.

“In the past, institutions have seldom been enthusiastic aboutexternal quality assurance. External quality assurance wasinterference on the part of the government or others; externalquality assurance was seen as creating uniformity so that moreemphasis was placed on procedural and process-based elements of theeducation system rather than on its content; external qualityassurance was a sign of mistrust that was at odds with the autonomyof the institutions.”

What could be fruitful ways and means to foster trust andquality in HE? And what are the essential ingredients of a cultureof quality within HE, which can strengthen both? You readDittrich’s keynote address here.

It’s the quality, stupid (and only thequality)

Distinguished colleagues,

I would like to start by quite simply stating that basically, Iam very pleased about all the attention being paid to education andin this case, higher education in particular. Fortunately,increasingly more governments and leading sectors of society arerealizing that education delivers the greatest contribution toprosperity and welfare. And that contribution will only becomegreater in the future.

This means that despite all the complaining, the sector has beenleft relatively untouched by spending cuts and that everythingpossible is being done to prepare the education sector for thefuture. Some are doing this by radically placing the student at thecenter of education policy, others are investing heavily inpromoting excellence, and still others are implementing changes tothe structure, while a fourth option is to strive for greaterdiversity and a higher profile. Higher education institutionsthemselves, students as well as quality assurance agencies areexperiencing this and have to respond to these changes. But initself, this attention is a positive point. 

Grotesque expectations

The reverse side of this attention is the pattern of expectationof those who desire a great deal from higher education and areresting their hopes on it. These expectations are sometimes’grotesque’ (why doesn’t the Netherlands have a ‘Harvard’?),sometimes they are realistic (why do so few students graduate andwhy do they take so long to complete their studies?), sometimesthey are frightening in their simplicity (we need to strive for’excellence’ while providing unlimited and free access for allstudents) and sometimes they are aimed directly at economic growth(education and research should be linked to key economic focusareas).

It is often difficult – and on occasion plainly impossible – tofulfill these expectations, especially when we bear in mind thatwhen employers and politicians identify a problem today they oftenexpect it to be resolved tomorrow – or the day after tomorrow atthe latest. But, fortunately, along comes a financial crisis or aproblem in another sector that temporarily diverts the attention ofpoliticians and the media.

Achieved learning outcomes

To my way of thinking and acting, the focus is being placed moreand more on the quality of education and research. I am not goingto define quality but I do regard it as the product of the actionsof teachers and students. I consider this product, often defined as’achieved learning outcomes’, as the measure of education. It is ameasure that is determined by a large number of factors: amongthese the quality of teachers, the quality of the enrolledstudents, the amount of funding, the educational approach, and thefacilities available.

So there is not just a single measure but several. We should beable to explain and give details of this measure, but it mustalways be seen in context. Quality assurance should therefore infact be focused on achieved learning outcomes in the context of thenational requirements, possibilities and circumstances.

But for me, this entails a very important condition! In all mynaivety, romanticism, love for higher education and idealism, Iassume a world of education in which teachers and students do theirutmost to make the product of their collaboration as good aspossible. For teachers this means that they are proud of theircraft and that they act as professionals in their field. This meansthat they have to keep up to date with the developments in theirfield or in the profession for which they provide training.

This also means that education, research, and often professionaldevelopment must be interlinked to a high degree. This intertwininginvolves a task for teachers. It also means something for students,namely that they must make a serious effort in their studies andnot regard studying as a part-time job alongside their mainoccupation in, for example, the catering industry. Students shoulddemand challenging education programmes and, as participants in theinstructional process, they should make their own, substantialcontribution.

Consultation inside and outside

Of course, something else is involved, and that is determiningthe vision and the ambition of a programme: what level should beachieved, what orientation is to be pursued? And the follow-upquestion to this: how can we make our promises come true? Neitherquestion can be answered in isolation, but rather requireconsultation inside and outside the programme itself. However,the solution and the answer cannot lie elsewhere than with thosewho bear the final responsibility, and in the first place thatmeans the teachers.

In the world of higher education the emphasis should thus beplaced squarely on the institution, the programme, the teachers andthe students, but that means that the responsibility for theperformances should be placed there too. And in this way I ammaking internal quality assurance a key focus area. This is also alogical consequence of the autonomy to which the institutions sofiercely aspire and which has now also been determined to offer thebest guarantee for the sound development of the sector.

So, the emphasis is on internal quality assurance, no matter howyou define it. Personally I don’t believe that the way in whichthis quality assurance is designed is the most interesting aspect.In some programmes, business administration programmes for example,a formal system could easily constitute the basis, based on totalquality management concepts, with solid evaluations conducted amongstudents, alumni and employers. In my view, in other types ofprogrammes like fine arts and philosophy programmes, this kind ofapproach is not very useful and more value should be attached to acombination of informal teacher-student-apprentice relationshipsand a less formalized quality assurance system.

Evidence of the existence of a qualityculture

Therefore, what I am also concerned with here is searching forand finding alignment with the dominant culture at an institutionand in a programme. In this regard, I am well aware that suchcultures are often far from unequivocal! I am thus actually lookingfor evidence of the existence of a quality culture to which Ibelieve the following principles should apply:

* commitment and professionalism of the staff
* involvement and efforts of the students
* cooperation in a team
* critical attitude towards oneself and the team
* (allowing) examination of the inside from the outside
* openness regarding the quality of the delivered products
* constantly asking the question of whether or not the good thingsare being done in the best possible way.

A quality culture of this kind offers the best guarantee (and inthe long term perhaps the only guarantee) that the quality of theeducation provided will remain as high as possible. Internalquality assurance should be in keeping with this.

Realizing and promoting a quality culture

What does this mean for external quality assurance? In fact,nothing more than that external quality assurance should be aimedat realising and promoting a quality culture. This quality cultureincludes a system of quality assurance, either formal or informal,or a combination of the two. And that system should be the subjectof external quality assurance, especially at the institutionlevel.

For me, there is only one question that is at the crux of thematter at the programme level: does the programme deliver what itpromises at the internationally accepted level for short degrees,bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees and PhDs? This is the realquestion that every institution and every programme should beinterested in. Is this idealistic? Possibly. Is this naive?Probably. Is this the crucial question? Beyond a doubt!

Of course the relevant question now is if we can get out fromunder the political pressure of limited trust – or a lack of faith- in our higher education institutions? Probably not immediatelyand this is in part down to us.

In the past, institutions have seldom been enthusiastic aboutexternal quality assurance. External quality assurance wasinterference on the part of the government or others; externalquality assurance was seen as creating uniformity so that moreemphasis was placed on procedural and process-based elements of theeducation system rather than on its content; external qualityassurance was a sign of mistrust that was at odds with the autonomyof the institutions.

Conflicting positions

But external quality assurance itself was not always a model ofsubtlety. In the most stringent systems, negative assessmentsresulted in the withdrawal of rights and even the cessation offunding; external quality assurance had little eye for differencesin culture and structure; and not infrequently, it turned out thatexternal quality assurance agencies were staffed by typicalauditors, so that only the result of the audits counted and not thestory behind them!

These conflicting positions of institutions and qualityassurance agencies, which were not infrequently voiced in harshwords, led to a lack of trust in the power of external qualityassurance. And that in turn, leads to mistrust amongpoliticians.

Of course I realise that a warm embrace among those beingassessed and those doing the assessing would have led toaccusations of too much caution, a lack of firmness and an oldboys’ network. But now that the gun smoke of recent history hascleared, it seems very realistic to me that the principle of aquality culture and its related internal quality assurance systemshould constitute the basis for external quality assurance.

I say this with even more conviction because I believe I haveobserved that teachers have absolutely no objection to talkingabout their field with their peers; they discuss what they havedone and achieved just as easily as what they want to do and wantto achieve. And we should start to make collective use of thisopenness!

Wheat and chaf in Holland

I am aware that today I am speaking from a long-standingNorth-western European tradition of quality assurance, based onrelatively stable higher education systems. Not every system cancontinue to speak from such a stable situation. It also means thatwe should have a system that is able to accommodate politicalintentions.

For example, when the accreditation system was introduced in theNetherlands at the programme level, private higher educationinstitutions were subject to assessment for the first time, withthe intention of separating the wheat from the chaff. This turnedout to be necessary and has led to a significant purification ofthe private education sector.

I can therefore well imagine that in several Eastern Europeancountries that are flooded with private higher educationinstitutions, stringent assessments are made of the level realisedby these institutions. I can also imagine that objective externalquality assessments can contribute to better information provisionfor students and the labour market. And I can also accept thatstriving to stimulate excellent curricula and to set them apartgoes hand in hand with stringent external assessment.

Benefits of HE

I am therefore not denying the primacy of politics. We sometimesjust have to conform to this primacy. After all, we know thathigher education is important and relatively expensive. At the sametime we know that the benefits of higher education for society inboth economic and socio-cultural terms are great. This justifiesthe attention paid to education and obliges us – institutions,teachers, students, quality assurance agencies – to show that weunderstand this attention and that we are taking our responsibilityfor the best possible quality of that education.

We can only cooperate, based on our individual roles andresponsibilities, but from a common basis, a basis that involvesthe autonomy of institutions and professionals, the commitment andprofessionalism of our teachers, and the involvement and efforts ofour students. External quality assurance agencies need to respectthis basis and allow the performances of the institutions to beseen. From this respect, based on a centuries-long history of goodresults, we should continue to convince politicians and society ofthe need for and the strength of our institutions.

So, my message is actually quite simple. What is involved hereis quality culture. If there is such a culture, if it is valued anddefended, education and research will flourish. And externalquality assurance? It cares!

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