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Has Higher Education Lost Control Over Quality?

Educational quality is now a hot topic in higher education globally.

In recent months, I have been involved in institutional assessments and government meetings on the topic in Finland, Romania, Ireland, and the United States—and shortly I’ll travel to Gabon on behalf of the European Union and the African Union to discuss quality issues.

While the discussions vary, what’s clear is that quality is no longer solely the domain of higher-education providers or independent agencies, like accreditors. Many governments want to step up their role in assuring that educational programs are worthwhile.

In the United States, this point is recently illustrated by the Obama administration’s College Scorecard and its 2014 budget proposal to examine “new quality validation systems that can identify appropriate competencies, assessments, and curricula.” Greater accountability had previously been proposed in 2006 by the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, established by the Bush administration. Its strong support for more federal involvement caused great controversy within higher education at the time.

There is little doubt in my mind that global rankings have played a big role in placing higher-education quality on the policy agenda. If higher education is the engine of the economy, then the quality of higher education and research are vital indicators of national competitiveness. Universities act as a magnet for students, business, and investment. The growth of a global labor market relies upon graduate and employer confidence in the quality and comparability of qualifications. Similarly, the increasing presence of for-profit and international branch campuses and programs requires internationally recognized regulation as a safeguard. These developments have transformed quality from something led by higher education into something driven and regulated by government.

Traditionally, academe relied on peer review and internal procedures of quality assurance at the individual program or institutional level. This would be the common approach of U.S. accreditation and European institutional reviews. The process relies on comparability of standards, and involves intense engagement that can take time and be financially consuming. However, the final report that comes from that process is usually written in opaque academic language, making it difficult to understand or compare performance between institutions, especially internationally. This has contributed to a breakdown in trust between institutions and students, policy makers, and others.

Rankings have prospered in this void. Despite all their limitations, they have exposed an information deficit. They have charmed audiences around the world by their crude simplicity. By equating inputs with outputs, rankings privilege age, size, and wealth. This makes comparisons between publicly supported systems and institutions with top-performing U.S. private universities, in particular, pernicious. The pervasiveness of focusing on the top institutions also obscures the fact that the majority of students attend higher-education institutions that are not elite.

Today, government involvement in the process and the assessment of quality is everywhere. At one extreme is the light-touch institutional audit operated by the Finnish Higher Education Evaluation Council, which focuses on quality enhancement processes. In this approach, universities are assessed against their own criteria with the aim of helping them to improve their own efforts to bolster quality.

At the other extreme is the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, in Australia. It emphasizes standards and outcomes, with extensive powers to regulate and to evaluate the performance of higher-education providers against (teaching) standards set by the government. The “voluntary” or “enhancement” aspect of many processes hides the reality that confidential outcomes are no longer acceptable. Failure to participate can have significant implications for institutional legitimacy, financial support, or reputation.

The Carnegie Classification system sought to provide a framework to describe differences between institutions according to mission. That idea was copied by the European Union with its U-Map project. Taking this a step forward, many governments have developed a qualifications framework as an educational road map for students and other stakeholders to explain what often appears to be a mystifying and fragmented landscape of higher-education options. Even the European Union has gotten in on the act. In the United States, the Lumina Foundation has promoted its Degree Qualifications Profile.

Rankings have taken determination of quality beyond both the university and the nation-state. Open-source and social-networking sites go still further and put tools directly into the hands of students and other stakeholders, bypassing higher education and government altogether. For example, Australia, Britain,  and the Catalonia region of Spain have made university statistics and performance open to public scrutiny. The Chronicle has even developed its own guide to college performance. And it is not too fanciful to image a TripAdvisor-type site for higher education in the near future.

Another paradigm shift is evident in efforts like the European Union’s U-Multirank and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s work to design a tool for the assessment and comparability of learning outcomes. Both projects were started with great fanfare about challenging the powerful global university-ranking systems, but both have run into some difficulty—effectively demonstrating the complexity with measuring quality.

Nonetheless, all these developments demonstrate that a Rubicon has been crossed. While higher education has traditionally been the primary guardian of quality, its role has effectively been usurped. If it wishes to regain some degree of control, then it needs to ensure that it is involved in a more meaningful way than it was previously. Urgent action is required to agree on how quality can be demonstrated to the satisfaction of all stakeholders.

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