What’s next?

Drawing on the results of interviews with these three ‘quality circles’ the project is developing small-scale projects which will aim to improve the ways in which quality processes are implemented and experienced within higher education institutions and to try to facilitate connections and dialogue between these three stakeholder groups.

For the next phase of the project the project team will be following up some of the issues raised by the data collection exercise and working with colleagues in their own institutions to create an initiative which will bring about positive change for one or more of the stakeholder groups and, of course, for the institution itself.

Each partner will be using the information collected during phase one of the SPEAQ project to inform these projects, one of which is already underway, thus will be following up on some aspect of quality raised during this exercise. It has been agreed that as the contexts in which people are working are so different and the needs identified very variable that each partner will be running a different project which will yield 9 case studies which can be shared and possibly replicated by others.

Sharing the outcomes from the project will also take place in this final phase through various channels such as the SPEAQ website, conference presentations, a journal article, local dissemination events and publicity through EU bodies such as EUA, ESU etc. Resources from the project, such as the SPEAQ workshop materials will be shared under an open licence in order that they can be adapted and re-used by others worldwide.

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Where has this year gone?

Workshops

The workshop has been developed by two of the partners (Universities of Jyväskylä & Deusto) and run in a number of different trial versions which have fed into a final version which will be run at the European Quality Assurance Forum conference in Estonia in November 2012. Following this a final version will be translated and uploaded to the SPEAQ website. These workshops have been very interactive and have proven to be a useful way of encouraging discussion among staff and/or students.

Data collection

To date the project has completed an initial data collection exercise through a series of student focus groups (facilitated by the European Students Union), meetings with institutional quality managers in the partner institutions and discussions with subject teachers in a range of disciplines, using a set of questions devised by the project team.

Synthesis reports

Three synthesis reports, summarising the results from all partners, have been prepared and some key emerging themes have been identified: a need for better communication around quality issues, improvements in the collection and use of feedback, more engagement of students in quality enhancement, increased opportunities for sharing good practice, professional development for teachers, applied learning (including employability), balancing teaching with research agendas, sharing and collaborating with others outside the institution. It has been encouraging to see that some of the core aims of this project are reflected in this data, these being to connect the three quality circles and to give voice to the views of all stakeholders in the quality process.

Meeting in Innsbruck

All the SPEAQ partners met in Innsbruck, Austria, for our second project meeting. It was a very productive encounter which generated lots of great ideas. Partners were able to exchange views and tips on activities that had already taken place, which proved crucial for the continuation of the project. And thanks to our Austrian partner’s brilliant organisation, we were even able to enjoy some of the delights that the Austrian city has to offer.

Conferences

Three presentations about the project have already been given at international conferences (Belgrade, Istanbul, Cluj-Napoca) with two more scheduled in November 2012 (Tallinn, Malta). Once the project activities have been completed and the results of the institutional projects evaluated an academic article will be written and submitted to an international journal.

Quality managers: Improving quality

Each partner was asked to make contact with at least one (many interviewed more than one) member of staff in their institution who had a role relating to quality assurance or enhancement. The term quality manager is used here to describe these roles but in reality there was a wide range of interviewees who had a variety of levels of seniority in the institution and were either in administrative, senior management or academic roles. In many ways this illustrates how diverse the quality agenda is within higher education and how differently quality is managed within different universities. However the comments from the interviewees which were reported by each partner and then summarised provide some helpful insights into the formal processes of quality assurance and some of the tensions which exist between these processes and the everyday business of teaching, learning and research. A full list of questions is available from the SPEAQ website, some samples of which are listed below:

  • What in your opinion are the elements of a good institution/programme/course?
  • What do you understand by the term quality within your university context?
  • Can you provide any examples of good practice of improving your teaching in your institution?
  • What would you like to improve in the study experience and how would you do it?

It is apparent that each institution considers quality assurance an area of utmost significance and there are some mechanisms in place everywhere to control and assess institutional and departmental quality. Quality assessment is primarily seen as an external procedure, but there is an increasing number of people in the universities, who believe that quality is or will become an internal matter as well. While quality managers seem to be in touch with the university management on a daily basis, they were not always able to maintain a similar close working relationship with students and teaching staff, although they agreed that it would be a desirable move and it would result in a beneficial change from the point of view of quality. They commented that quality managers usually work behind the scenes and in most cases their work becomes ’visible’ in their respective communities only during accreditation or other periods of official assessment. There is variation as to the perceived influence of quality managers on education and university policies. Some quality managers felt they had a voice in their communities, while others thought that although they are given the opportunity to speak they are not necessarily really listened to in a sense that they could influence decision makers.

Importance was also placed on ensuring that quality should be discussed when things go well at the university and not only when serious problems arise and radical changes are needed. Several quality managers also commented on the fact that too frequent structural changes, or changes in national educational policies make it impossible for institutions to deal with quality issues efficiently on a long-term basis.

Course teams: Do you feel engaged in the quality process?

Each partner has been making contact with colleagues teaching in a range of disciplines in order to collect views on quality from academics and to gain insights into whether the LanQua quality model is relevant to other disciplines. The course team meetings were particularly useful in exploring the ways in which academics did, or did not, feel engaged with the quality process and to gain insights into how they collected and responded to student feedback. A full list of questions is available from the SPEAQ website, some samples of which are listed below:

  • What in your opinion are the elements of a good course?
  • How do you feel you are supported in your teaching development? How do you think the institution supports teaching and learning?
  • What do you think you do well in your department that other departments can learn from?
  • Is quality a daily matter for you or something which occurs only sporadically?

Unsurprisingly the teachers comments were closely related to pedagogy, ensuring that courses were fit for purpose and teaching was engaging and up-to-date. There was concern relating to the perceived lack of reward for teaching (an overemphasis on research or administration) and lack of student motivation. The need for professional development in order to keep up with new developments in technology and pedagogy was mentioned, as well as the need for more discussion about quality of learning and teaching, such as in the sharing of good practice and peer-observation. The institutions involved are all engaging with international quality assurance requirements, so there was agreement on many of the issues recognised as important for the objective quality of a study programme, department or institution, e.g. student teacher ratios, number of qualified staff, structured and coherent programmes, adequate QA mechanisms, student involvement, employability rates, success and drop-out rates etc. There was also considerable commonality regarding teachers’ perceptions of what would ensure a better quality learning experience. This included:

  • attracting better prepared and more motivated students
  • providing structured learning environments tailored to the needs of groups of students
  • giving value to teaching and teachers
  • using feedback from quality assurance constructively
  • organising resources in such a way as to enable teamwork, dialogue and discussion involving teachers and students

Students: Do you have a voice within your university?

The student focus groups consisted of small group meetings led either by a student member of the European Students Union or by a staff member (where a student was not available). Participants were invited to respond to a number of questions relating to their learning experience, their understanding of the concept of quality in higher education and their influence (voice) in the quality process. The set of questions used with students was designed to encourage positive comments rather than complaints and a full list of questions is available on the SPEAQ website, some examples of which are given below:

  • What is the most rewarding learning experience you have had on your programme/course and why?
  • What makes your experience as a student a valuable one?
  • Do you have a voice within your university? Are you listened to? If so, how is your opinion heard/acted upon? Where is your voice heard? By whom?
  • What can you contribute to enhancing the learning experience?
  • Who are the quality managers in your institution?

Each partner submitted a summary of the main outcomes of their student focus group to the European Students Union which has produced a draft summary report of the key findings from each of the focus groups.

In all focus groups, communication is identified as an important element of a good institution. However, according to the participants in the discussions, communication is the most common problem. Students require better communication teacher-to-teacher, teacher-to-student, student-to-student, student-to-teacher, student-to-administration through regular meetings, round table discussions etc. In addition to communication, students are looking for an opportunity to apply their learning.

In terms of their understanding of the quality processes within their institutions it was found that in general students do not know who the quality managers in their institutions are and there is considerable variation in the effectiveness of class representatives and students.

Finally, when asked about quality enhancement students appear to have ideas about how the learning process could be enhanced, but are not so creative when it comes to their personal involvement. 

The SPEAQ workshop: what does quality mean to you?

The workshop has been developed by two of the partners and run in a number of different trial versions which have fed into a draft version which will be run at the European Quality Assurance Forum conference in Estonia in November 2012. Following this a final version will be translated and uploaded to the SPEAQ website.

These workshops have been very interactive and have proven to be a useful way of encouraging discussion among staff and/or students. Participants are encouraged to explore quality from a number of perspectives and in many cases discussions have continued beyond the time allotted for the activity. It has clearly stimulated thinking about quality and feedback has shown that participants appreciated being given the opportunity to explore quality in this way (from their own perspective) and responses from students have been particularly enthusiastic. Some students were surprised to be asked about what they contribute to quality as they more usually think of themselves as consumers (receivers of quality) rather than having a role to play within it. Other participants gave suggestions for the projects to be carried out in the second year. Some examples are: supporting students in their first year of study and improving end of module/course feedback questionnaires. The workshop uses a dialogue sheet to stimulate discussion.

The workshop uses a dialogue sheet to stimulate discussion. This tool provides a focus for discussion with participants being asked to consider what questions they might ask to evaluate the quality of a number of everyday items and services. They are then asked to reconsider their questions in the context of higher education and decide on a set of questions which are useful for the purpose of evaluating quality in education. They are then encouraged to think about which questions might relate to their own experiences as student, teacher or administrator and discuss how they might answer them from their own perspective. This helps to relativise quality and to show that all participants have a role to play in quality assurance (and enhancement) and how similar or different these roles might be. As this workshop was quite experimental and was delivered in contexts (countries) with different working practices the way in which the dialogue sheet was used was adapted by each partner. The final workshop will try to take account of these differences and allow for adaptations.