Universities and higher education systems around the world have become fixated on quality over the past two decades. They have tried out any number of initiatives designed to improve quality. They have looked for structures that will produce concrete evidence of effectiveness and efficiency.
Quality assurance has emerged as one of universities' most significant management tools in this quest. It has become a feature of every continent's higher education system. Its major drive is to ensure that universities provide quality higher education based on a minimum set of criteria and standards. At the same time, it is expected to improve quality within an institution.
But does it work? I undertook a study in Ethiopian universities as part of my PhD research project to find out the realities, opportunities and impediments of quality assurance.
Ethiopia's higher education landscape has expanded continuously from about 2004. Then, there were eight public universities in the country. Today there are 36. Private universities are also on the rise, and account for about 15% of the country's total tertiary student population.
Enrolment rates have climbed too: in 2010/11, Ethiopia recorded 447,693 undergraduates across institutions. By the 2013/14 academic years, this had risen to 593,571. Most of these students were pursuing technology or engineering related degrees.
Preliminary evidence suggests that their quality of teaching and learning has actually dropped despite the introduction of quality assurance systems. Why is this the case?
The Ethiopian university landscape
First, a word about what "quality assurance" entails at universities. The average quality assurance system requires evidence of "quality" at an institutional level. This is measured, for example, through research output, student progression from enrolment to completion, and graduation rates. Lecturers are expected to keep track of such details through overly prescriptive teaching and learning assessment policies.
My research found that the concept of quality assurance has been accepted by Ethiopia's government and education authorities. It is also accepted as a daily reality at individual institutions. The problem is that there's no evidence to show any widespread qualitative change in classroom practices or students' learning experiences.
For the most part, Ethiopian universities struggle to get basic and essential learning resources like text and reference books and laboratory and workshop equipment and facilities. Students' academic work most often depends on notes handed out by lecturers. This means that three things become crucial:
developing the skills and resources required to learn
learning independently, and
cooperation among students
The problem is that the quality assurance systems being used in Ethiopia have not been developed with the country's specific educational context - as outlined above - in mind.
Advantages and problems
There are some advantages to the system of quality assurance. For example, it provides an agreed upon definition of quality that works almost everywhere. It also establishes a minimal threshold as a standard for quality - a base from which all institutions can work. There are, finally, valuable structural approaches, procedures and processes inherent within any quality assurance scheme.
However, there are several impediments in such a system. These include heightened emphasis on reporting of results, methodological flaws and a lack of concern for context.
Research has shown that the efficacy of quality assurance lies in its political and ideological nature. This means that any system of quality assurance relies heavily on adherence to externally imposed definitions and structures.
It's also all about performing common actions - so a lecturer at an under-resourced but overburdened Ethiopian university would be expected to behave in the same way as a colleague at a wealthy Australian institution to live up to ideals of "quality".
Quality assurance doesn't mean improved quality
It is obvious that there is room for improvement in Ethiopian universities' teaching and learning practices.
These systems tend to have a limited scope of information available to serve as inputs for quality improvement. This is because their emphasis is on "the big picture", like student graduation numbers, rather than on daily academic or learning experiences. Such systems don't consider evidence about regular academic practices or students' learning experiences as being important information that might contribute towards improvement.
Simply put, quality assurance focuses on reporting to meet accountability requirement and undermines the influence of context. It also undermines the complexity of educational outcomes and institutional practices, as well as the conditions that lead to attaining such outcomes.
Making changes to make systems work
Quality assurance programmes definitely have a role to play at Ethiopia's universities. But this role will only be truly positive if programmes are modified to take academic considerations into account. They must also become more flexible about collecting essential data at an individual level rather than just focusing on the institutional level.
Changing the programmes' focus in this way will mean that higher education quality assurance becomes more concerned with the micro realities of higher education and the academy. Also, they will become more relevant to driving any improvement of quality.
Tefera Tadesse does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.