Let’s face it, if I asked you the question in the title directly, you’d answer “Yes” immediately. Similarly, if I asked you for an example of high quality education I’m sure you’d be able to give me at least one, even if it took a bit longer to think of it. But, if I then asked you why you’d chosen that example and why that education was ‘high quality’, the answer may not arrive before we’d given up on this conversation all together.
The reason why the last answer would be difficult is that it’s very tricky to identify what ‘quality’ in higher education actually is. In fact, my definition of what ‘quality’ in higher education is wouldn’t necessarily match yours or anyone else's for that matter; so why would I potentially spoil our friendship by asking you these questions in the first place? Well, it’s because I care a lot about the quality of your (and lots of other people’s) education, which is why I work as the Quality Assurance Manager for BTEC Higher Nationals and why, potentially, I’m not much fun to talk to at parties!
When I’ve looked to define what quality means, the struggle to pin down a definition is exemplified by key policy documents on quality assurance (QA). These documents describe (often in huge detail) the ways in which quality in higher education should be assured but, crucially stop short of defining what ‘quality’ actually is. For example, the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area written by the European Association for Quality Assurance University Association makes no attempt to define, describe or identify quality. The Irish Universities Association (IUA) on its website has a page of useful definitions in quality assurance, but oddly the term ‘quality’ is not defined there.
If it's that tricky to do, how on earth can quality be spotted, measured and ‘assured’ by people like me (which is my selfish reason for asking this)? There is a bit of an indication in this statement that forms part of the UK’s Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education’s (QAA) quality code :
‘… quality is concerned with how well the learning opportunities made available to students enable them to achieve their award.’
By taking this approach (which is the most commonly used approach in the UK) it means that each institution offering higher education (let’s call them education providers) will define quality by stating what learning opportunities they will be offering to their students. To do my job and assure the quality of education provided, I have to judge education providers based on their own definitions of what they offer to their students. To ensure that my (and Pearson’s) judgements are consistent, despite the differences in the education providers we deal with, we set standards by which we can judge what education providers offer. To demonstrate that we are judging by standards fairly, each education provider goes through the same processes to provide evidence that they meet Pearson’s standards, creating a level playing field. This is where I get very interested, and where my original set of questions come in.
To demonstrate that their students’ have reached their potential and that students have reached their intended outcomes, an education provider has to demonstrate that it understands what students capabilities are and what they want to achieve. To do this education providers must, therefore, ask their students what they want from their programme and how they can help them achieve this. Once they’ve asked, education providers must then demonstrate how they are responding to what their students are saying. In this way (if it is done well) education providers can easily demonstrate the learning opportunities that they are providing to their students.
The easiest way to demonstrate this? After almost a decade of looking through programme documentation I would say that regular student engagement activities such as surveys, tutor group meetings, student reps and student staff committees are great examples of this. But, and this is crucial, only if students have been engaged, listened to, and changes made based on this feedback. It isn’t enough that a survey or feedback has taken place. In high quality education there must be evidence that the education provider has asked for feedback from as many students as possible (not just one or two), that the questions they are asking are reasonable and that they are making changes to their programmes based on the feedback.
In saying this I’m making the argument that the key element (not the only one, but one of the most important) in making a decision about whether education is ‘high quality’ is how students are engaged and how changes are made to help students achieve. One of the biggest barriers to this is non-engagement of students because if students don’t tell education providers what they want, or what needs to be changed, then the quality of the education will be limited to what those delivering the programme think students want.
So, do you care about the quality of your education? I still think the answer to this might be ‘yes’ from most people. But if I then asked what you did as a student to feed back to your education provider and highlight where they could make changes and improve the quality of your education, I don’t think I would get as many positive answers.
This then is my plea, if you get the opportunity, get involved and provide that crucial feedback to your education provider. I know that students get asked to do lots of surveys and to provide lots of feedback, and it’s tempting not to engage with it. But if education providers are to give you the highest quality education and help you achieve the outcomes you want from your education… they need to hear from you.
The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (2018) Quality Code Part B. Available at:http://www.qaa.ac.uk/assuring-standards-and-quality/the-quality-code/quality-code-part-b [ Accessed 16 January 2018]
European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (2015) Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area. Available at: http://www.enqa.eu/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/ESG_2015.pdf [Accessed 16 January 2018]
Irish Universities Association,(2015), Quality Assurance. Available
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Pearson