Upsetting the apple cart

May 31, 1996

Are plans for quality assurance heralded in a new report on the right lines? Three readers think not. The quality game that has been played out in British higher education has achieved its only viable outcome. It has placed quality on the agenda. It has also ensured that institutions have some internal processes to address quality issues - at least when someone outside asks for it. What it has not done, and what it will not do, is to ensure continuous quality improvement.

This means doing far more than tinkering ineptly with the system to avoid upsetting any apple carts. It means sweeping away the whole cumbersome bureaucracy, overblown methodology and multiple layers of assessment, assurance, validation and accreditation.

Other countries have played the accountability game as a device to shake complacency. They realise it is a limited game and that unless quality focuses on improvement it is meaningless. Australia had a quality assessment procedure which, internationally, was more berated and despised than England's. Three cycles, lasting a year each, involving a crude one-day visit linked to status ranking and significant cash handouts, was considered a quick and dirty approach unable to grasp the subtleties of quality assurance and assessment.

Now that process is seen as a remarkably efficient and effective way of putting quality into the limelight and ensuring that universities not only rapidly establish and document quality procedures but also encourage a discussion on purpose and practice. Placing Sydney, an "ivy league" university, in the second rank following the first-year assessment was an inspired move.

In Britain, we have not realised that the accountability-led quality game has a limited life. We cannot let it go, we patch it up and edge it, piecemeal, towards improvement - something for which the system (with the possible exception of the Welsh strategy) is ill-equipped.

What we need is a much simpler system of external quality monitoring (EQM) that emphasises continuous improvement driven by the people who can effect real change - the teachers, students and learning support staff.

What might this look like? First, we need to make a clear distinction between quality and academic standards. Academic standards should remain the preserve of external examiners ably supported, where appropriate, by professional and regulatory bodies. Second, quality should be subject to a single system, one that audits continuous improvement rather than assesses existing provision or procedures.

Research, discussion and anecdote from around the world illustrate that the most significant element of existing EQM methodologies is self-assessment, which promotes a process of open, responsive, collegial reflection on purpose, procedures and practice. This element, more than such things as peer review and statistical indicators, offers the basis for a bottom-up process of continuous quality improvement (CQI) combined with top-down internal and external audit.

The key is to identify meaningful teams operating at the learner-teacher interface. These teams should own and set a continuous improvement agenda. Each team, for example a group of staff teaching a course along with student representatives, would set a quality improvement agenda. Rather than the typical course annual report - a retrospective account, written by a tired course director, that gets filed away and forgotten until the next report has to be written - the continuous quality improvement agenda would be a team-written document at the start of the year identifying not what had happened but what improvements will be made. Each year the effectiveness and outcomes of last year's improvements strategy would be evaluated and a new 12-month strategy initiated.

Each team-based CQI agenda would be subject to a 360-degree review by the appropriate dean or head of services, by students and by other teams in the same faculty. This process of 360-degree review would lead not only to the projection of sensible and manageable strategies for improvement but also act as a check on the veracity of improvement claims.

A central internal quality monitoring (IQM) unit collates the reports (including, if appropriate, one from the deans and heads of services acting as a middle-management team, subject to a similar 360-degree review). Where there may be concern about the veracity of any report, they should undertake an audit to confirm the content. The unit may also wish to do periodic or random audits. A university-wide overview and improvement strategy, produced by a senior management team including the vice chancellor, would be added to team reports and the composite document would constitute the university quality report.

This would be the sum total of the quality documentation produced by the institution on an annual basis. EQM would then involve an audit of this quality report in much the same way that the financial accounts are audited. This may occur on an annual, periodic or random basis. Such audits may include inspections, peer review, reference to documentation or statistical indicators but would focus on improvement agendas and would comment on the veracity of claims, the appropriateness of the strategy and highlight good practice. The institution quality report and the audit report would be published documents.

The process is simple, emphasises continuous improvement, places the onus on those who can affect change, and gives them ownership and control while engendering a responsive and responsible approach.

Lee Harvey

Professor at the centre for research into quality, University of Central England, Birmingham.

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