Are universities learning from external quality assurance?
With the rise of the quality assurance movement over the past decades, External Quality Assurance (EQA) has grown significantly in many countries, including the developing world. More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of quality assurance in higher education amid changes in modes of delivery.
As a mechanism, EQA focuses on verifying the existence of a quality assurance or monitoring system within an institution, serving as a barometer of institutional strengths and weaknesses.
The objective of the EQA is therefore to assess the procedures and processes that higher education institutions use to maintain the quality of their education according to the established objectives.
It establishes the qualitative objectives set by the higher education institution and assesses the procedures and processes that higher education institutions use to maintain the quality of their education and associated services.
In doing so, it assesses whether the higher education institution’s quality assurance is functioning as intended, whether it produces useful and relevant information for improving its operations and whether it results in effective improvement measures.
Despite the introduction of EQA systems across the world, the focus has been on putting systems, structures and policies in place, undertaking institutional audits and publishing the results of audits rather than tracking the results. and study the impact of external quality audits.
Thus, it is often argued that the EQA examines the system to achieve good quality and not the quality itself.
Components and Benefits of EQA
Notwithstanding possible contextual disparities, EQA mechanisms in most parts of the world incorporate elements such as conducting assessments based on predetermined and transparent criteria; using a combination of self-assessment and external review; focus on public disclosure of results; and ensure the validity of the result of the evaluation for a given period.
The EQA also includes a monitoring phase during which higher education institutions are expected to benefit from the findings and recommendations of a quality audit exercise.
EQA programs, and in particular its procedures, are often seen as cumbersome and ineffective. However, if properly used and executed, the process can have many positive results at system and institutional levels.
Under normal circumstances, an external quality assurance process produces information about the functioning of the institution, which is supposed to strengthen public confidence in the quality of education offered by the institution.
Since it primarily embodies improvement goals, EQA can play a catalytic role in helping an institution to verify whether institutional goals are being met and to identify areas for improvement.
The results and recommendations obtained through external audits can also affect the design and implementation of internal audits, further promoting changes and improvements.
EEQ in Ethiopia
In terms of procedures, the external quality assurance process in Ethiopia is a voluntary program that follows the traditional four phases of self-assessment, peer review, reporting and publication, and monitoring.
The formal practice of EQA in Ethiopia began in 2007, long after the introduction of accreditation into the system and after the first audit exercises were undertaken by the Agency for the relevance and quality of the system. higher education (HERQA), Ethiopia, from 2004 to 2006 with a view to introducing the formal scheme into the system.
The practice was strengthened after the higher education proclamation of 2009 which placed new emphasis on external audit procedures and the link that EQA should have with internal quality assurance, with the aim of improving institutional improvements.
The introduction of EQA has provided a variety of opportunities for Ethiopian institutions, foremost among them the creation of frameworks and structures capable of responding to the growing challenges of the quality of education.
While most universities have been successful in undertaking reforms to this end, the system continues to suffer from various shortcomings, the main one of which is its inability to respond to recommendations suggested after the completion of institutional quality audits and publication of reports.
The monitoring scheme
HERQA has made the development of an action plan, the preparation of an implementation report, an institutional visit and the action of the major components of the monitoring mechanism to which the institutions must subscribe.
Despite this policy, the implementation of the monitoring mechanism remains weak due to the way in which the mechanism was structured and implemented.
Although HERQA recognizes the link between EQA and how its results should be used to improve internal quality assurance processes, little progress has been made in translating this link into practice.
This shortcoming is the result of the little attention given to the regime by individual institutions and the limitations of HERQA when it comes to influencing changes in the system.
To begin with, institutions show little motivation in developing institutional improvement plans after the EQA or to integrate the results of the EQA into the ongoing institutional strategic plans that govern their activities.
While the impacts of EQA are often expected to result in changes between successive audits, this does not happen in practice. This was particularly evident during the second round of HERQA quality audits, which found that a significant number of institutions showed limited progress after their first audit.
This is not only a clear indication of the institutional failure to apply the findings of the quality audit, but also a deficiency of the system in terms of the implementation of the monitoring phase as a as an essential part of institutional improvement once the audit process is complete.
HERQA’s follow-up visits after institutional quality audits have received marginal attention due to the agency’s limited capacity and excessive workloads and the Ethiopian system does not include measures such as linkage of results of evaluation with strategic plans or similar mechanisms to encourage improvement – as is the case in many other systems.
Therefore, despite the enormous resources expended, the EQA remains an exercise with limited muscle and perhaps only useful for institutions that have a high level of commitment, motivation and willingness to benefit from the process through their own efforts. .
A disturbing trend
The fact that the results of the EQA process are not being used effectively for internal process improvement purposes is of concern as it undermines the main reasons why the EQA process was introduced in the first place.
Although HERQA recognizes the link between EQA and internal quality assurance and their complementarity at the theoretical level, little progress has been made in terms of translating this link into practice.
Most universities appear to have neither the motivation nor the structural will to use the recommendations made during the EQA process to improve internal performance.
As observed by HERQA itself, quality assurance units set up in universities seem to have little authority in terms of follow-up actions, which limits their roles in quality assurance and improvement. institution for which they were created in the first place.
The same goes for learning good practices. This is because the dissemination of information based on audits is not widely practiced within and between institutions. This gap is exacerbated by the limited accountability and monitoring programs put in place in the system.
In addition to losing the various benefits mentioned, neglecting the follow-up phase has the potential to undermine the seriousness of the EQA exercise and threatens to trivialize the whole activity.
The situation requires serious and urgent redress, both at the system level and at the institutional level.
Wondwosen Tamrat is Associate Professor and Founding President of St Mary’s University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Collaborating Researcher in the Private Higher Education Research Program at the State University of New York in Albany, USA, and coordinator of the private higher education education sub-cluster of the Continental Education Strategy for Africa. He can be reached at [email protected] or [email protected]