Is Quality a Wicked Problem in Australian Higher Education?

Quality is one of those words. You know what it means at face value, and unless you enjoy torturing yourself about the definition of words (like me) that’s all that matters. You know it when you see it and you move on, going back to your Sudoku puzzle (or whatever).

In the University system, and I’d argue in Education more broadly, Quality is a slippery sucker. The more you try to pin it down, the more elusive it becomes. It is a slug. A wicked problem (Spoiler!). Yet understanding it absolutely matters due to how much perceptions of Quality impact government policy and funding. Funding arrangements then impact how key stakeholders in the sector (like academics – the ones that teach your children) do their jobs.

Understanding perceptions of Quality

Quality in higher-education means different things to different people. Those people include politicians, students/learners, administrators, teachers/academics, managers and the folk in IT.

From a learner’s perspective, a quality education might be any combination of thought provoking, relevant, engaging, enlightening, multi-modal, well-written, inspirational and accessible. From an IT person’s point of view, quality of education might mean that it is secure, interoperable, free of bugs, user-friendly and cost-effective. Academics/Teachers might view quality as academically rigorous, educationally sound, engaging, interactive, appropriately assessed, referenced and peer-reviewed. A board of directors might view quality in economic terms such as return on investment or the University Ranking.

So which of these perceptions or interpretations of Quality is the most influential? It’s the one that is responsible for cutting the cheques – the government. In Australian Higher Education Institutions, the debate around Quality is strongly connected to Neo-liberalism and capitalistic views. That is, tertiary education exists primarily to prepare students for jobs, and to support economic prosperity.

The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) monitors what Universities teach through 7 year audits that focus primarily on ensuring Universities provide students with a laundry list of qualities that generally revolve around work readiness (Graduate Attributes). And then they along with other government agencies, survey the students through standardised survey instruments to find out if their time with the institution has been ‘positive’. Whatever that means (Hint: It’s not really about what they are learn).

Student Experience as Quality

The emphasis the government and its various arms places on the student experience, and the student view more broadly means their perceptions matter a whole lot. Listening to students isn’t a terrible idea but it is debatable whether students are reliable assessors of their own educational experiences. Especially in the moment of receiving a fail or a result lower than expected. Did you enjoy this subject? Hell no. Was your teacher any good? Hell no, I didn’t learn anything.

That aside, if we do view the ‘Student Experience’ as a valid means of determining a Quality Education, I think that literally everything the staff of a University does (or doesn’t do) has an impact. A student experience is well beyond what happens inside of the classroom. The choice and implementation of systems (like an LMS), enrolment and admission procedures, the website and ease of access, the help and guidance provided by the technical support staff matter. The contact points for the institution like student services staff, the certificates and congratulatory emails administrators send, the speed at which a staff member responds to a question and how the alumni officer interacts with the student 6 months after they complete their studies matter. Even non-human factors like the campus and how nice the trees are matter.

Sydney University – A Quality University. Nice trees too.

Doing our part

Many of these aspects are outside the realm of what the little people have control over. They are dictated by macro-factors such as government policy, funding and the resultant strategies put into place by leaders.

If you are concerned with producing something of quality, think small and start by defining what high-quality means to you and your particular audience(s). Talk to your colleagues and understand what some of the shared problems are in your institution. Set some goals for your own area of influence. Then put a plan in place and work collaboratively with the people around you to meet them.

Your future self will thank your current self for the clearer path towards a quality program.

(Further reading: In The Conversation, Patience Wukambo on quality in higher education and the need for greater emphasis on the social and human development side of education rather just employability)

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