SPEAQ Project Manager, LLAS Centre, University of Southampton
It was a slow start to the year at Trento, mainly due to bureaucratic hiccoughs: the institution of the Student-Teacher Committee, central to one strand of the mini-project at the School of International Studies (SIS) was delayed until February. Nonetheless, to kick-start the project, some informal meetings were held with the student members of the committee, all students on the Master’s in European and International Studies (MEIS). These students have taken their role to heart and had held meetings with all the students enrolled at the SIS to discuss quality issues. This enthusiasm met its reward first in early March with a formal meeting with the Degree Director, and subsequently on seeing some of their feedback and suggestions included in the first ever report to the newly created Italian QA Agency, submitted in March. The Committee finally met for the first time on April 29th.
The second strand of the mini-project, focusing more directly on enhancing the experience of international students in the Italian HE context, is also well underway.
Interviews in February with Quality Management and staff of the International Office and the Head of the International Student Welcome Office identified areas of improvement from the administrative point of view.
In mid April a focus group for all international students enrolled at the SIS, EU and non-EU, was well attended and another meeting is fixed for mid May. Some of the issues raised by the students were in part due to a misunderstanding of the Italian HE system by international students or simply due to poor communication or lack of information. Others were of a more technical nature, but the exchange of information at least helped students understand why things are as they are!
A group of highly motivated MEIS students asked if they could run some ‘mini projects’ of their own, mainly regarding enhancing communication. Since Easter they have been working on:
- Creating an Alumni Network
- Improving the information for prospective students on the website
- Creating a FAQ page for prospective students
- Interviewing students, former and current to identify other critical points
- Inviting advice from former students to current students on employment prospects
- Enhancing information about the School and its Programmes intended for the general public and future employers
- Setting up an SIS Student Facebook page
- Drafting a mini-guide to Studying at the SIS and in Italy for international students
- Making a short video for the website
These projects, along with the students’ proposals for the MEIS itself, will be presented to all SIS students and staff at an open debate on 14th May entitled ‘Prepare to be aMEISed’.
Around 25 delegates at the European Quality Assurance Forum in Tallinn came to the workshop Ole Helmersen and I facilitated as part of our role in the Sharing Practice in Enhancing and Assuring Quality (SPEAQ) project team. The target audience of the conference meant that a majority of participants were in quality management roles. In contrast, the workshops I co-facilitated in Southampton and Edinburgh had mainly academic and student participants.
Delegates at SPEAQ workshop, Tallinn
The project as a whole seeks to bring together academics students and quality managers in the Quality Assurance process. One of the ways in which we do this is through a dialogue sheet whereby people think of questions they would ask to assess the quality of everyday objects or services ranging from spanners to sofas to hospitals (my colleague Laurence Georgin has written more a detailed post about the workshop). They then go through the questions to discuss which questions they could also ask about higher education institutions or course programmes.
Delegates at another table
In terms of feedback from participants three emergent themes which struck me, which have been less evident in previous workshops. These differences are a consequence of both the fact that most of the participants were quality managers and the different academic systems in which they work.
- Participants brought up the question ofinternal processes, which are, of course, a key part of their job role. However as end-users of a product (whether as a patient in a hospital, a user of a spanner or a student on a higher education course), internal quality processes are not considered or addressed unless a problem emerges which gives course for an end user (or his/her representatives) to question internal quality processes.
- The durability of a product: a sofa may seem to be good quality at the point of purchase, but what happens if it falls apart a year later? Is an academic course durable? What if fails after purchase, (e.g. during the course or after graduation), despite seemingperfectly adequate for a length of time?
- Poor teaching: Is poor teaching quality a quality issue? On one hand the obvious answer is ‘yes’, but responsibilities for bringing poor performers up to standard usually lies with senior academics (Heads of Departments, Deans etc.,), not quality assurance managers. These questions also arise if ‘quality issues’ are a consequence of individual teacher illness or disability. In a multi-national setting cultural, historical and organisational structures can lead to different processes and outcomes.
The workshop powerpoint slide and files will be available in the few weeks.
Dr John Canning, Senior Academic Coordinator, LLAS, University of Southampton
Sylvia Manning from the US Higher Learning Commission was this morning’s keynote speaker. She began with an historical overview of accreditation in the USA. Historically government has played a lesser role in Higher Education than in Europe. It was not until after WW2 when the federal government began to supply funding for war veterans that government interest in accreditation really began.
One of the important tends in US higher education has been the rise of ‘for-profit’ universities. In order to receive federal funds universities has to be accredited in all the states in which they operate (accreditation is regional in the USA). This was not a problem for the larger ‘for-profits’ e.g. University of Phoenix, but an unexpected consequence was that smaller colleges, especially those engaged in distance learning were left in limbo. Professor Manning gave the example of a student in the armed forces taking a distance learning course accreditation in the state where the army base is located. However, if the student is then relocated to another base in a state in which their college is not accredited they are no longer able to access federal student loans.
Professor Manning asked her audience to draw their own ‘lessons’ from the USA situation. The keenness of the current UK government for expanding accreditation in the private sector and the emergence of ‘for-profits’ present many challenges for quality assurance in the UK.
Dr John Canning, Senior Academic Coordinator, LLAS, University of Southampton
I promised that I would blog and tweet from the European Quality Assurance Forum.
This evening we were treated to a keynote address from Jethro Newton (University of Chester) on the question, ‘Does quality assurance lead to enhancement?’ One of his central points is there has been very little actual research into this question.
Professor Newton also used the term ‘Quality Revolution’ to describe the changes in QA since the early 1990s. A member of the audience challenged him on this – it does seem to suggest something more radical than actually happened.
Dr John Canning, Senior Academic Coordinator, LLAS, University of Southampton
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.