Policy Forum: quality and employability in higher education

13 June 2016


Title Text: 
IIEP Director Suzanne Grant Lewis with Professor Wu Yan, Director-General of the HEEC.

The UNESCO Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP-UNESCO), Xiamen University and the Chinese Higher Education Evaluation Center (HEEC) joined together to organise this year’s IIEP Policy Forum on “Higher education quality and employability: How can internal quality assurance contribute?” With support from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD/DIES) and the Chinese Higher Education Quality Construction Fund, the event took place at China’s University of Xiamen from 9 to 11 June 2016.

The event brought together some 180 Chinese and international participants from 25 countries to discuss ways to make internal quality assurance effective for the enhancement of quality, employability and managerial effectiveness in higher education institutions worldwide. The participants included national policy-makers and heads of QA agencies, university leaders, quality managers and researchers on quality assurance, as well as the researchers who participated in the international IIEP research project on IQA. The Chinese participants included representatives from 60 universities and a strong team from the Chinese QA agency, the Higher Education Evaluation Centre (HEEC).

Innovative and effective IQA systems in eight universities worldwide

The Forum served as a platform to discuss the findings of the IIEP research project Exploring innovative and effective options for quality assurance in higher education. First launched in 2014, the eight carefully selected universities from around the world came together in China to present the innovative elements of their IQA and to analyse the effects of it on their institution.

“The participation in the IIEP research has helped us to gain important insights into the perceptions of the main stakeholders in our IQA system”, said Professor Wu Daguang, the Vice President of Xiamen University, and one of the authors of the University’s case study in the project. 

The first keynote speech at the Forum was delivered by the Director-General of HEEC, Professor Wu Yan, on the existing QA system in the country and the current thinking of HEEC for reforming it. “With more than 26 million students in regular higher education, and China currently having the biggest system worldwide in terms of enrollments, the topic of both internal and external quality assurance is very high on the policy agenda in China”, he said. “The organization of this Policy Forum is therefore very timely, since Chinese universities are developing their IQA systems at this point in time”.

IQA tools and processes

The Policy Forum addressed a number of issues, which are currently under debate among IQA professionals. Identifying data collection tools for internal quality assurance that effectively support quality monitoring and enhancement is one of them. Tools have to avoid generating an information overload, and they therefore need to be carefully designed and combined. In order to bear on decision-making and effective change, IQA processes should be connected with strategic and academic planning, resource allocation, staff and curriculum development.

“At the University of Duisburg Essen, IQA outcomes directly feed into target level agreements and strategic planning”, said Christian Ganseuer, who is the Director of the Centre for Higher Education Development and Quality Enhancement at the German University of Duisburg-Essen.

Striking a balance between centralized and decentralized management

Finding an appropriate balance between centralized and decentralized management of IQA, as well as an adequate distribution of responsibilities between academics and administrators, is a particular challenge for higher education institutions. While central coordination and support to IQA processes is a requirement, there is great need for decentralized ownership to create involvement. “At the University of Bahrain, we have tried very hard to find a balance between top down and bottom up processes. We believe that central coordination of IQA is necessary”, said Bassam AlHamad, the Director of the Quality Assurance and Accreditation Centre at the University of Bahrain.

Employability and the role of IQA

Further discussion took place on the issue of employability and the role that it should take in IQA. The opinions of alumni and employers on the relevance of academic programmes are now more systematically compiled as part of IQA, mentioned by both Mike Kuria, who is in charge of quality management at Daystar University, Kenya, and Charles C. Villanueva, the Pro-Vice Chancellor at the American International University of Bangladesh.

Employers may also be directly involved in the design and review of study programmes, thus directly providing inputs on what skills are needed and how to develop them. IQA will need to establish an appropriate balance between the more academic perspectives of quality and those which are more employability oriented.

“Internal quality assurance also needs to focus on how study programmes can prepare graduates for their working lives beyond their first employment”, stressed Professor John Brennan, Emeritus Professor of the Open University in the UK.

In her opening remarks, IIEP Director Suzanne Grant Lewis also stressed the role of IQA in responding to fast-changing labour markets worldwide. "Amidst this growing international appreciation for higher education, in many countries, high dropout rates and increased unemployment rates among graduates cause us to question the relevance of higher education programmes and whether they are preparing youth for a rapidly changing world, including a labour market which is experiencing transformation globally," she said. "In addressing these concerns, Internal Quality Assurance or IQA has become a major reform strand in higher education around the world."

Fostering a quality culture

Building a quality culture is often seen as the main outcome of IQA, which can be understood as a collective and shared understanding of what quality is, and how it can be enhanced. “What is most important is that internal and external stakeholders engage in a critical dialogue on quality issues”, said Professor Lee Harvey, who has widely published on the issue of quality culture. Developing a quality culture needs above all effective communication processes. “At our University, we avoid using technical language when we speak to our staff about IQA, but we rather support a dialogue on quality”, said Oliver Vettori, in charge of quality management at the Vienna University of Economics and Business Administration.

Linking EQA and IQA to “integrate” the higher education sector

The link between external and internal quality assurance was debated in the Forum’s final panel. While some participants strongly felt that EQA and IQA should be directly interlinked, others thought that, since they fulfill quite different purposes –EQA stands for control while IQA aims at improvement –they would better be kept separate. A consensus emerged that the context really determines the link to be established between the two.

In countries where higher education systems are relatively small and quality levels homogeneous, it is easier to separate the two. “In Brazil, the link between EQA and IQA provides an important means for integrating a rather diverse higher education sector into a system, through the development of comparable and thus more equitable quality levels for all students. The link between EQA and IQA is thus an opportunity for inclusion”, said Professor Dilvo Ristoff, former Director of Evaluation at the Ministry of Education in Brazil.

Exchanging best practices

Internal quality assurance needs to constantly adapt to changing circumstances, and thus undergo evaluation itself. International cooperation, exchange of good practices and benchmarking among universities is therefore a must. “The IIEP research project on internal quality assurance has been an opportunity for the participating universities to closely assess their IQA systems, to learn from each other and to make available their experiences to other universities in their country”, said Michaela Martin, Programme Specialist at IIEP and coordinator of the project. “Several of the eight universities are already starting to do this”.