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Monday, September 25, 2023

Quality assurance in higher education

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By Amadou M Touray – BA, MA

Quality assurance is a process of a methodical review of programs or institution which assists in determining if the acceptable standards of education, infrastructure, and other associated educational tasks are met and improved. It is one of the schemes which is built to value higher education by enhancing conformance to increased quality standards. A quality assurance system enhances the learning environment and academic landscape in order to facilitate the education and training of future employees thus increasing their employment opportunity, (VSO International, 2018).  

There are different understandings and practices of quality assurance. While a focus on the traditional earmarks of quality assurance such as academic facilities including library holdings, effective use of technology, qualification of teaching staff and accreditation are instrumental in holding higher education institutions accountable, they address quality only at a superficial level aimed at serving managerial ends. These do not bring about improvements in teaching and learning and do not necessarily engender an attitude among staff, which is focused on development, or simply translate into or provide concrete evidence of student learning outcomes. Quality assurance must not be limited to serve merely as a ritual that feeds accountability. Instead, it should be concerned with the day-to-day activities associated with teaching and learning in higher education and related processes, including curriculum planning, the interaction between teachers and students in the learning environment, and the development of learning communities (Westerhereijden et al. 2007).

Given the direct and indirect collective benefits derived from public investment in higher education, almost universally, the state is responsible for a well-functioning and productive higher education system (Council of Europe higher education series No. 9, The legitimacy of quality assurance in higher education).

The increased competition between nations engendered by pressures of neo-liberalisation placed high importance on the assurance and enhancement of quality of teaching and learning on the list of higher education institutions (Biggs, 2001) aimed at ensuring the relevance and effectiveness of public investment. It is highly essential for developing countries like the Gambia to implement an effective, more top-quality education system and national quality culture to enhance economic growth.

The essence and purpose of quality assurance systems is a commitment to excellence and to encourage the continual improvement of educational provision. Renown public intellectual and educationist, Noam Chomsky, in a February 2012 YouTube video stated the purpose of educational provision as the development of the ability to enquire, to create and to search the riches of the past and appreciate and internalize those parts considered significant with the view to carrying further exploration of new possibilities to add to an existing body of knowledge for scientific and cultural progress. This view on the purpose of education from the traditional enlightened sense resonates with the twentieth-century American educationist John Dewey’s definition of educational provision as the development of those capacities in individuals, which will enable them to control their environment and fulfil their possibilities. 

Educational provision, therefore, should encourage creative exploration, independence of thought, and the willingness to cross frontiers and to challenge accepted beliefs. It is not surprising therefore, that A N Whitehead described education as the acquisition of the art of the utilization of knowledge. The essence and purpose of quality assurance systems is a commitment to excellence and to encourage the continual improvement of educational provision.

As a measure for the attainment of these goals of educational provision, the student of education must be capable of understanding and interrogating the structures that shape and drive social, economic, and cultural reality through learning. According to Heather Fry et al. (2009), learning is about how we perceive and make meaning of the world by mastering abstract principles, understanding proofs, remembering information, acquiring methods, techniques and approaches, recognition, reasoning, debating ideas, and developing behaviour appropriate to specific situations. Curriculum design, teaching, and learning activities must be carefully selected and organized to help make learning happen (Fry et al, 2009).

Over the past two decades, progress has been made in the importance of undergraduate teaching and learning on several fronts, including the growth in knowledge about how people learn attributable to cognitive science, the rise of active pedagogies and ‘student engagement’ and the development of explicit structures to support teaching such as professionally staffed teaching and learning centres (Don F Westerhereijden et al. 2007).

Quality assurance should be concerned with a range of teaching and learning activities, including curriculum development to communities of practice (Westerhereijden et al., 2007).

Given that the definition of quality is highly contested, in his paper, Quality Assurance in Higher Education: The Evolution of Systems and Design Ideas, E. Grady Bogue cited the following definitions of quality:

“Conforms to specifications. A product or service that meets design specifications is a quality product or service (Crosby, 1984). It is fit for use. A product or service that satisfies the customer’s or client’s expectations is a quality product or service (Guaspari, 1985). Achieves its mission and goals (program or institutional effectiveness). An individual or organization that meets its goals is a quality program or institution (Green, 1994). Improves continuously. An organization that creates a climate for constant improvement is a quality organization (Deming, 1986). Considers multiple factors. Quality is a multifactor concept involving not only fitness for use but also reliability, durability, aesthetics, and so on (Garvin, 1988).”

E. Grady Bogue presented the following thoughts about quality: that quality is to be found in the eye or opinion of the beholder in any program or institution that meets its goals, a culture of evidence. These thoughts about the nature of quality aimed at enhancing understanding of the concept of quality assurance define the very purpose and history of educational provision. The condition should be present in each institution according to its mission and goals represented in the results of the institutions in the form of ”value-added”. Quality should be understood and assured by insisting on how well institutions pursue their missions, which almost always reflects the potential of high quality. The evidence of quality is the degree to which institutions conform to their mission specifications and goals achievement within acceptable standards of accountability and integrity (Bogue et al. 1992).

Missions and goals of higher education institutions must reflect the essence of national educational policy aims and objectives to be relevant and to conform to requirements of quality, as stated in the above definitions. The variety of programs of any institution are demonstrated within and by the clarity of its mission or purpose and how efficient and effective that institution is in meeting the goals that it has set itself.

According to Alexander Astin (2008), the quality of a program or institution is the impact it has on the development of talents that add most values on the student’s knowledge and personal growth and the faculty members’ scholarly and pedagogical ability and productivity. The difference a program or an institution makes in the student knowledge, skills, and attitude is the measure of the quality of that program or institution (Bogue et al. 1992).

Therefore, any activity for assuring quality in higher education while it may embrace accreditation of programmes by external standards and periodic accountability and reports of performance indicators, must place emphasis on the assessment of student learning outcomes and performance indicators relating to value addition, and commitment to continual improvement and satisfaction of stakeholders. Quality assurance must be centred on the acquisition of multiple forms of evidence in the evaluation of both student and programme performance. It is the above cluster of evidence that must be the basis for making judgements about the quality of students, programmes and institutions. The change that a programme and institution make on the knowledge, skills, and attitudes of students upon their exit is therefore the true determinant of quality. Constructive assessment activities for the determination of quality of provision must be effectively linked to teaching and learning and the improvement and analysis of what happens in the classroom and how this meets the satisfaction of stakeholders if they should have any impact on the assurance of quality. Quality assurance and assessment exercises should therefore have a vision of quality that depends more on teaching and learning and caring for students (Bogue et al 1992).

The assurance of the quality of teaching and learning must be integrated and complemented by an assessment of student learning outcomes to cultivate values that will honour the quality of students’ journey in higher education institutions. Assurance of teaching and learning quality, therefore, is a responsibility invested in the minds and hearts, and the values and courage of the faculty and administrators who hold the climate of teaching.

Review of the Tertiary and Higher Education Policy of the Gambia reveals that the strategy aims to build a tertiary and higher education system for the development of programs focused on the generation and application of new knowledge and skills required to catch up and keep pace with rapid technological advances that continually change and shape education and skills needed for the job market. This requires a system of educational provision that would enhance the development of knowledge, skills, values and attributes and other employability skills which increase career opportunities on the one hand, and the development of critical, creative thinking skills, intellectual curiosity, analytical and problem-solving capacities, and innovative skills on the other (THEP 2014 – 2023). The aims of the policy make a statement on the desired learning outcomes that graduates of tertiary and higher education must acquire and demonstrate for their experience to be worthwhile. Therefore, curricula for teaching and learning must incorporate these attributes, and teaching/learning activities should seek to balance out a program or course content and the learning attributes. The policy is a direct influence of neoliberalism which shifted the higher education landscape by increasingly aligning goals of business, government and education. Neoliberal forces have shifted the role of higher education institutions towards the production of employable graduates to feed national prosperity in the emerging knowledge economy (Hill et al, 2016). Consequently, universities have begun to articulate the generic outcomes of the educational experience they provide that complement content knowledge and which every graduate of every programme should possess in order to enable them to cope with the dynamic employment opportunities as well as understand who they are and how to contribute positively in their local, regional and global communities (Barrie, 2007).

Common graduate attributes that help to develop academic, citizenship and career competencies have gained recognition in universities. They include: critical thinking skills – intellectual curiosity, analytical reasoning, problem-solving and reflective judgement; effective communication; leadership and teamwork skills; research and inquiry skills; information and digital literacy; personal attributes such as self-awareness, self-confidence, autonomy or self-reliance, flexibility and creativity; and personal values such as ethical, moral and social responsibility, integrity and cross-cultural awareness (Hill et al, 2016).

Graduate attributes are not only being increasingly used to inform curriculum design and engagement with teaching and learning experiences at universities around the world, Barrie, (2007), they have become well established in universities in Australia in the last two decades; they are integrated into the Scottish Quality Enhancement Framework, embedded in England within individual institutions following the HEFCE skills agenda; promoted in Europe following the Bologna Process; and there is ongoing and renewed interest in graduate skills in the United States; and gained momentum in New Zealand Qualifications Framework (Hill et al, 2016).

Based on the foregoing, the assurance of quality in higher education institutions should also evaluate the quality of provision including the processes of designing and implementing these attributes within, across and beyond curricula, and the development or acquisition of graduate attributes in the process of teaching and learning. The assurance of quality should evaluate whether graduate attributes are embedded in the course development, delivery and review processes and incorporated into extra-curricula activities; and how students are developing specific attributes through curriculum documentation, appropriateness of teaching, learning and assessment strategies for the development of discipline-nuanced graduate attributes (Hill et al, 2016).

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