April 25, 2018
Today, higher education systems and institutions are exposed, more than ever, to constant change and transformation. As the higher education sector is quickly expanding, institutions and programs have become much more diversified and often privatized. Within this context, the quality of institutions and their programs are more easily questioned.
This situation has triggered first the development of external quality assurance mechanisms in higher education as a general reform movement throughout various parts of the world.
Indeed, governments are increasingly engaged in the quality control of higher education institutions and/or their programs through periodic external assessments, but higher education institutions are also responding to quality concerns by setting up internal quality assurance (IQA) mechanisms for the purpose of monitoring and management.
Within this context, the UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP) launched a research project in 2014 concerned with the exploration of international trends, innovative practices and good principles for IQA.
The research also sought to demonstrate the effects of IQA and identify internal and external factors that condition its effective functioning in universities in order to provide guidance to other higher education institutions for the development of their own IQA.
With this objective in mind, the project applied as methodology an international baseline survey (jointly conducted with the International Association of Universities) and eight in-depth university case studies. IIEP has recently published the research under this link.
Some 400 universities responded to the international survey. It showed that the biggest driver for IQA was to meet the requirements of the national external quality assurance system, as indicated by 89% of responding institutions.
In a close second, international aspiration—referring to the desire to become a university that attracts foreign students, staff and funds—came in at 80%, followed by the requirements of a national qualification framework (77%). At the same time, three-quarters (75%) of the responding institutions indicated that a government request to develop IQA was an important driver as well.
In addition, the survey revealed that IQA is generally focused on teaching and learning, but that management is also an important concern. It showed that there were also gaps in the development of IQA, for instance, with monitoring of student assessment systems, the physical environment and the concern with employability of graduates.
The research focused additionally on innovative structures for IQA as observed in the eight case universities. The importance of linking IQA tools with other university functions emerged as a critical success factor for effective IQA. For instance, the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany has developed IQA to function as an integrated system of tools and processes.
The University of Bahrain has achieved a balance between centralization and decentralization of decision-making in IQA. The University of the Free State in South Africa integrates IQA with academic core processes so that results generated from IQA can directly feed into academic planning. Finally, the University of Talca, in Chile, has integrated IQA with the strategic management of the university.
Innovation and success
The research helped to identify innovative IQA tools in support of quality, employability and quality culture. The importance of effective formal and informal communication structures for IQA becomes clear as a critical success factor. This aspect has been one of the key features of IQA at the Vienna University of Economics and Business, an Austrian university that deliberately avoids technical language when involving academics in IQA.
The systematic collection of perceptions on necessary quality improvement from different university stakeholders has been carried out at Xiamen University in China.
IQA tools and processes that address issues of quality and employability were highlighted from the experience of the Daystar University in Kenya and the American International University-Bangladesh. Both universities have responded to a context of rising graduate unemployment and their IQA systems are thus particularly geared towards the collection of information from graduates and employers.
The research helped to identify the effects of IQA on teaching and learning, employability and management. It showed that IQA can have a multitude of effects on content coverage, the assessment system and the teaching and learning methods of study programs, thus enhancing their employment orientation.
When evaluating management structures and processes, IQA helped to identify necessary organizational change and new practices that allowed for better support of academic core processes.
Internal and external factors conditioning the effective operation of IQA were also identified. Inclusive systems with leadership commitment and stakeholder participation were confirmed as important internal factors for an effective functioning of IQA. National frameworks, and in particular external quality assurance and the level of autonomy, came out as external factors that strongly affect the implementation of IQA in higher education institutions.
The project helped to present overall lessons learned for national and institutional policy-makers and quality assurance officials. These emphasize the importance of flexible and qualitative tools for IQA that function in an integrated manner with quantitative ones in order to avoid an information overload.
They also highlight the need to balance academic- and employability-related IQA tools to avoid an excessive specialization of university graduates. And finally, they underscore the importance of an evidence-based dialogue on quality improvement among university stakeholders as the major outcome of internal quality assurance.
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