From where I sit - Collective judgement

July 14, 2011

In New Zealand, a unique process where all universities must collectively approve all new degree programmes shows that collegiality can thrive, even in a competitive education environment.

New Zealand's national quality assurance framework is based on a model of registration, accreditation and continuous review of both qualifications and providers. All providers must be identified on a national register and the programmes they offer accredited by one of two designated quality assurance bodies.

Regular audits are a requirement of the New Zealand system - as they are in many of its counterparts around the world - but a distinctive feature of its quality assurance framework lies in the processes for approving and moderating qualifications, which are based on cross-university peer review. This is understood to be the only such system in the world.

The Education Act 1989 empowers Universities New Zealand, the sector's repre- sentative body, as the quality assurance body for all degrees, diplomas and certificates offered by the country's eight universities. In 1990, it established the Committee on University Academic Programmes (CUAP) to operate qualification approval and moderation processes.

Proposals for new qualifications (or significant changes to existing ones) must be submitted to the CUAP during one of two rounds each year. The proposals are then circulated among the universities, where they are subject to peer review by staff in relevant disciplines. Feedback is then collated and submitted to the CUAP for assessment.

Universities are also required to submit a review once students have graduated with the qualification. This requires reflection upon the programme's forecasts, delivery and outcomes.

The CUAP is chaired by a New Zealand vice-chancellor. Its membership comprises eight senior academic managers, one from each university; a member of the New Zealand Union of Students' Associations; and a full-time CUAP staff member. All act on behalf of the collective university community in granting or refusing proposals.

Each university has developed robust internal procedures for the peer review and critique of qualification proposals, including those received from other universities. Independent reviews of CUAP processes have affirmed the value added by the peer-review system. Feedback from university staff also suggests that qualification proposals are improved as a result of the comments and queries received from others, even when they fail to make the grade.

While the idea of exposing qualification proposals to competitor institutions may be uncomfortable for some, the CUAP process is testament to the culture of collaboration that exists among New Zealand's universities and their staff.

The question of whether the public interest is served by this collegial approach is debatable. However, it could be argued that representatives of academia rather than regulators or "consumer champions" are likely to make better decisions about programme quality when defined in terms of the intended curriculum and its delivery. The CUAP's prescriptive and regulatory force is an effective buffer between considerations of academic quality and decisions about fees and funding.

These points are worthy of note in an international higher education context where student demand, completion rates and the ability to reduce operating costs are increasingly used as indicators of success.

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