Thursday, October 31, 2013

Ensuring Quality in University Programs

Yesterday, I commented on Professor Jim Barber's call for changes to Australian law governing the regulation of Australian universities to allow for lower cost on-line courses. Professor Barber proposed the regulations look at the quality of the educational outcomes, rather than measure the input. Today I attended a seminar on how to ensure quality of assessment for courses. This was putting the case for output based measures of quality, applying processes from manufacturing industry.

It may seem inappropriate to treat students as units of production, but if society demands consistent results within and between institutions, then there would seem to be no way to avoid some measurement and comparison of students. The concept of Quality is written into the "Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Act 2011":
                     (a)  to provide for national consistency in the regulation of higher education; and
                     (b)  to regulate higher education using:
                              (i)  a standards‑based quality framework; and
                             (ii)  principles relating to regulatory necessity, risk and proportionality; and
                     (c)  to protect and enhance:
                              (i)  Australia’s reputation for quality higher education and training services; and
                             (ii)  Australia’s international competitiveness in the higher education sector; and
                            (iii)  excellence, diversity and innovation in higher education in Australia; and
                     (d)  to encourage and promote a higher education system that is appropriate to meet Australia’s social and economic needs for a highly educated and skilled population; and
                     (e)  to protect students undertaking, or proposing to undertake, higher education in Australia by requiring the provision of quality higher education; and
                      (f)  to ensure students undertaking, or proposing to undertake, higher education, have access to information relating to higher education in Australia ...
The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) oversees this quality process. The Act mentions "quality assurance practice", but does not define what this is. The Act defines a quality framework as a series of standards decided by the Minister on the advice of a Higher Education Standards Panel. Some institutions can self-accredit their courses, whereas others are accredited by TEQSA.

TEQSA's "Higher Education Standards Framework (Threshold Standards) 2011"  is very general and non-prescriptive. For example:
The higher education provider has sufficient appropriately qualified personnel to manage and to provide academic leadership for the higher education provider’s higher education operations.
 The framework doesn't define "sufficient" or "appropriately qualified". This would vary greatly between disciplines and methods of teaching. Strictly speaking, such an input measure has no place in a quality framework, unless it can be shown to directly relate to the product produced. As an example, there is little research to show that the research record of university staff improves the quality of teaching. What does improve teaching is training teachers in how to teach.

Another example of confusing input with output is class size. One university might limit tutorial sizes to fifteen students, while another has classes of 100 students. Research shows that class size has no effect on student outcomes.

The framework is also prescriptive in referring to "locations", which assumes that students attend a class on a campus. This can be easily interpreted for an on-line course, where students should also be safe. But, it would be better if the framework did not have an inbuilt bias.

Developing Nations Formally Adopting Quality Standards

The vague references to quality in
TEQSA's documents contrast with the approach of the proposed by Basir (2012) for  Malaysian universities to use of the ISO 9000 Quality Management Standards (ISO 2008) . It is suggested this could lift the quality of Malaysian coursework programs to western standards. While that may seem ambitious, the Japanese car industry used similar standards to overtake western car makers within a few decades. By use of on-line technology, the same may be possible in education in less than a decade. However, the Malaysian Qualifications Agency does not apprise to have mandated this strict us of standards.

Quality and Higher Education in India

Building the Links Between Funding and Quality in Higher Education: India's Challenge"(Lindsay Daugherty, Trey Miller, Rafiq Dossani, Megan Clifford, RAND Corporation, 2013)In "Building the Links Between Funding and Quality in Higher Education: India's Challenge"(Lindsay Daugherty, Trey Miller, Rafiq Dossani, Megan Clifford, RAND Corporation, 2013) describe quality measures introduced by the Indian government. The authors suggest suggest seven policy actions to link funding to quality.

Many of the measures proposed for India are already in place in Australia, such as a student financial aid system tied to accreditation. However, others are yet to be implemented in Australia (or USA), such as: "... a quantitative data system to measure quality of higher education institutions...".

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