Azərbaycan məktəbi.-2008.-4.-S.19-29

 

Academic Quality Assurance in Azerbaijan's Higher Education:

Implementation Challenges

 

Jala Garibova - Azerbaijan University of Languages Baku

 

Introduction

The concept of academic quality has gained a higher degree of public significance in higher education over the past few decades. This is due to several factors, first of all, to the undeniable reality of constant pursue by the developing nations to bring their social life standards close to those of the well-established democracies. Education often opens the list of the spheres where change and reform is considered most vital. It is also among the most difficult areas to change given the pre-existing models which have been deeply entrenched in the social system and the public mind in these countries.

It is challenging also because education is ever changing and ever evolving. The concept of academic quality, which has become a top agenda in quite a number of developing countries, in particular, in the post-Soviet nations, started its migration from Europe, where the context in which higher education operates has changed due to a number of factors. Among them is growing globalization and anti-globalization tendencies, increasing market elements in the European approach to education, growing interference of the European Union in higher education as well as the pursue to maintain the quality of European higher education in a constant competition with American education system. Chasing quality is also in place in the United States, where the concept of quality education is currently caught up between two major tone-setting tendencies: freedom and accountability.

While the concept of academic quality assurance has become a popular educational agenda issue in the world, and is often placed in the context of the so-called "Bologna Process", some caution is probably necessary to take so that the concept is not devalued to become a definition for a mechanical tool for and arbitrary measuring of random processes or superficial tendencies. Nor should it be allowed that quality in education becomes tantamount to a technical, business-like deprived of any kind of emotional coloring. Some recent literature discusses academic quality assurance as a phenomenon that ends an era associated with enthusiasm and that begins an era more characterized by realism in the field. But progress in education always takes a certain degree of enthusiasm. Many educational problems especially in the developing world cannot be solved if such factors as enthusiasm, dedication, risk, sacrifice etc. are not in place. So maybe procedures should be developed in the framework of quality assurance to measure such non-quantifiable factors.

The sphere of education is one of the most discussed topics in the post-Soviet Azerbaijan society, whether in the context of promoting the government's state-building and democratization endeavors, of describing challenges the country is confronting in the transition period, or as part of the criticism of the government for insufficient efforts to solve the burning problems in the most vital areas of the society. In fact today education in Azerbaijan is a true challenge, an unsuccessful handling of which will drastically impact the future of Azerbaijanis as a nation. And truly, education, especially the higher education is the most vivid sign, and a brightest example of how difficult, and how painful the transition period has been for Azerbaijan. The difficulty of the transition period, aggravated with specific political and social issues, has put a strongest imprint on education.

If we want to look at the indicators, they can range from the old Soviet teaching mentality to insufficient computers in classrooms, or from a ridiculous for the 21st century degree of centralization of the education system to free-vole initiatives of private Universities running after recruiting as many students as possible to the detriment of essential principles of quality education. Reasons? Again, there are myriads of them, some of which are not even peculiar of only developing societies at all. The major global problems in the educational transition are surely shared by developing countries, however, education in these countries would incredibly benefit if more serious and more genuine efforts were made to solve at least some of the specific, "closer-to-the-earth" problems at their very root.

For the recent 2 or 3 years the first steps have been taken to start reforming higher education in Azerbaijan. Many Universities have successfully been placing specialists and experts from West, particularly, from USA. American embassies and the US State Department in developing countries have been partnering with local Universities to design the reformation process in higher education, to ensure a smooth transfer to the credit system, and to facilitate the democratization processes at Universities.

But again, what presents a serious challenge is sustainability of these measures. Time factor of course should be taken into consideration because transition is a gradual process, which takes a lot of preparation, head-change, and resource creation.

Based on the overall proved theory standing behind internationally developed principles and guidelines for educational quality assurance, as well as on my immediate empiric observations, I would like to present major factors (both extra-educational and educational) that stand as current challenges to quality assurance and quality control in higher education of Azerbaijan.

Environmental Scanning (Legal and economic factors)

Quality measures, as created in individual cases or as a good-will initiative of the Ministry of Education or Universities, is still vulnerable and subject to disruption or degradation. First and foremost, it is connected with the socioeconomic status of the teaching personnel.

By socio-economic status I mean, first of all, proper, adequate compensation to the teaching force. The problem of inadequate compensation generates other larger problems such as multiple jobs and resulting poor quality, lack of transparency, degradation of the image of the teacher etc.

Poor quality results, in the long run, in the demoralization of the society. We should ensure that students perceive education in Azerbaijan as real acquisition of knowledge and skills rather than as a simple period of transition to Turkey, Europe or USA. This is of course also a problem of many other countries who, for example, have recently joined the European Union; students from these smaller countries have a strong tendency to transfer to larger European countries and in many cases not to come back. This has a negative affect, both quantitative and qualitative, on the student contingent of these Universities.

But in many cases, students leaving Azerbaijan for other countries are not motivated by mere opportunities to change the environment or to gain a broad world experience. They look forward to an atmosphere where they will be treated as normal students with privileges that the society grants to the studentship and to gain genuine knowledge.

Again, and again, this will be difficult unless an adequate support is in place, which will allow University administrators to renew their human resources pool. Otherwise, university administrations and the Ministry of Education will be constantly doomed to continuous failure in their fight with irregularities and in their struggle to enhance quality.

Economic difficulties are also reflected in the tendency to perform multiple jobs at various Universities. So even if Universities take a severe step to create a new sound resource pool, they do not succeed, because very few of those who show integrity and professionalism can fully dedicate themselves to one workplace. Men are especially difficult to catch for permanent positions.

Sustainability of the educational quality also depends on legal accountability and legal support. A law on education needs to be in place in order to support the education reforms legally. The legal framework is also necessary to clarify the status of the post-graduate and doctoral education.

Autonomy of Universities

Quality assurance expects an institution to develop a balanced governing structure designed to promote institutional autonomy and flexibility of operation. Lack of autonomy affects Universities in many ways: creating or raising their own funds, financially encouraging good performance, concluding contracts or agreements for rendering or receiving services, recruiting personnel outside the established by the Ministry of Finance, staff schedule.

Most seriously, this manifests itself in the restriction of Universities to offer flexible programs and to compete in the market by offering diversified curricula. Some 20 to 30% flexibility allowed in curriculum design will make programs less competitive. Curricula should be developed depending on the philosophy, mission and strategy of that higher education institution. This makes it difficult to consider comments from the professors and students and possible constant review of the programs. Without this a quality output is difficult to enforce since this depends on constant evaluation and improvement.

Interestingly, the process has taken a reverse direction in many Universities of USA. The concept of accountability has produced a tendency to bring certain curriculum components into commonality in particular in relationship with general education requirements. This, according to the opinions of many, eases the mobility of students within the US and creates a higher degree of accountability on the side of the Universities in their strategic program building.

Efforts should be made to prepare the Universities for carrying out the admission process up to the world standards. Currently, admission and placement of students to Universities is carried out by a central government agency, which, in an ideal case, would act, as its worldwide counterparts, in the capacity of a test service institution. This is explained as a transitory measure to enhance transparency of the student admission processes at Universities. However, Universities should start developing a sound approach to the admission process where they would be competing for best students, who are a major driving force on the way to ensuring academic quality.

Internal Communication

Communication is a major problem and is a most urgent issue to solve. Autocratic communication and a directive approach still exist at the level of Universities. I put it in the context of education today, but unfortunately it is an overall societal problem. In Azerbaijan, unfortunately, the problem still remains at many levels and in many spheres. Administrators have not quite learned how to communicate with their personnel in order not to debase their personality. Of course, there are exceptions. But there should be a kind of "communication framework" developed and entrenched as part of academic culture. I would just like to give some hints on how this affects the teaching process. Wrong communication discourages and hinders good, dedicated performance and a diversified approach to teaching, thus damaging the image of a teacher or professor in the whole. At many Universities, old Soviet type of disciplinary measures are applied to check (not to review) professors' activities, such as interrupting the teaching process to check whether the professor has stepped into the classroom with his or plan ready, whether he or she has marked absences at the beginning of the class, or whether they really teach, and not just waste time, while implementing interactive technology. Scolding teachers in front of the students, sometimes without any good reason, is not an exception. This takes place particularly at private Universities, at some of which the founder's behaviour is no different from that of an old feudal in relationship to his subjects. This brings to a constant flow of resources from these Universities, lack of commitment on the side of the teachers, who often quit on the process and walk out in the middle of a semester. Imagine for a minute sustained quality under the pressure to replace this professor.

At its depth, the reasons for wrong communication are bound with the lack of a context of trust. And therefore this happens more at the level of private schools, whose founders need this trust more to protect their personal property. Unfortunately, except for a few cases, private University founders are mostly motivated by protecting their business rather than promoting genuine education in the country.

Strategic Communication (Public Awareness)

More should be done by the Universities to reach public in order to convey the changes at the Universities brought about by the Bologna process and/or quality assurance initiatives. General public awareness of how Universities function or should function is still at the level of the pro-existing Soviet perceptions. The parent factor is one of the major elements at Universities. Parents often manifest a high degree of involvement in the student-University relationships - but often when problems arise in the course of the study of their kids.

And any new problem that arises beyond the typical, in relation with the student's academic success, is perceived as a fault and failure by the University. For example, the implementation of the credit system requires a novel approach to the solution of the failure problem, such as retaking the course instead of the retaking of the test (which was the usual case before), which may put the student 1 semester and sometimes 1 year behind. Retaking a course should also involve additional charge on the side of the students. But many Universities cannot go ahead and implement it. It is a great risk to apply this rule to the students who do not pay for their education (since free payment is not something that is based on a scholarship which is extended according to the merit of the student for a particular time during his studies, but instead, which is decided as an official status that the student has gained based on his admission score, charging a non-paying student for an additional course would be perceived as the violation of his or her rights). On the other hand, it would not be fare and honest to apply this only to the fee-paying students as this by itself would present discrimination.

Free schedule and elective courses presuppose free grouping against what existed as fixed student groups. Sometimes concerns as minor as "why my kid is often distracted from his/her group, why cannot he/she stay in one group" could be brought as complaints. The transfer to the credit system is still confusing to many, and it is not unusual to see parents who perceive it as an opportunity to get a bank credit to cover the tuition fee.

However, this is not only parents. There is not sufficient awareness in the society, in media, among other professionals and to tell the truth, among many of the teaching staff unless they are administratively involved.

Building public awareness is gaining public support which is very important for the advancement of the Universities. It would ease the process of developing fund-raising strategies by involving alumni and, when possible, donors. It would also change the direction of University-parent relationships and would encourage the parents for a different kind of participation. Strategic communication within the Universities is extremely necessary since it would create a corporate spirit and a higher degree of involvement. Communicating is educating, which would have an incredible impact on the overall quality factor.

Strategic Planning at Universities

Strategic planning in higher education would be able to become a driving force for improving academic quality. Strategic planning is something that would allow administrators to plan their actions based on not only internal but also external (as shown above) factors.

A well planned strategy means a well designed educational management, a broad view on University advancement, a dynamic approach to the solution of the problems, a higher degree of collaborative participation, elevated University-student relations, a vision on employability of graduates, forethought on the competitiveness of the programs, and a social value that the University delivers through its programs and research. A good strategy planning cannot miss any of these points.

Strategic planning is a new concept. Although it has already taken its way from the United States and has migrated to other countries, it still may be new for many European Universities. In fact, significant historical differences in the evolution of higher education institutions between Europe and USA present a challenge to European Universities in their strategic planning and management endeavors. The analysis of the plausibility of Strategic Planning in Europe provided by Taylor, Amaral and Machado in "Planning for Higher Education" (Vol.35, #2, 2007), provides information on the restrictions for European countries to implement effective strategic planning. The example of 10 European countries manifests that the process is fully underway only in a few cases. The main reasons are shown to emerge from the understanding of the market concept in these countries. "In Western Europe", as is discussed, where the state is the main resources provider, the "market" appears more obviously a rhetorical construction than an ideological concept. Even in countries like the UK where Thatcher revolution has introduced all the ingredients of market rhetoric, no real market for higher education has been allowed to emerge."

Presently, strategic planning within higher education focuses mainly on the United States. It has gained a strong attention recently as a solid mechanism ensuring sustainable quality. Strategic planning models have repeatedly been shown to work well and to be generally valid, although some institutions worldwide have failed in their attempts to effectively implement it.

It would be an effective way to start implementing quality assurance with in many post-Soviet countries, including Azerbaijan. Benefits can already be predicted. Strategic planning, once undertaken, would legitimate efforts towards enhancing quality. Since it is strategic, it would focus on internal and external environment analysis, and would have to address the University's mission and vision. Strategic planning in fact would enable the initiators of reform to look at the problems at their very root, and to develop tactics to eradicate them. It would make quality assurance and control procedures sustainable rather than ad hoc.

What kind of risks does this involve in Azerbaijan? Among the most serious would be: lack of good leadership and concerted action, failure to communicate, insufficient participation and shared governance, lack of resources, resistance to change, and inadequate understanding of the process itself.

Evaluation procedures

Quality assurance is based upon a principled judgment of the performance quality accomplished as a constant review process, and a rigorous application of requirements. Review process should be a well-organized one, which would involve a self-analysis, internal reviews and informed external peer reviews.

The existing review and promotion system does not enable University administrations to reveal good potential and basis for encouragement since it is mainly based on quantitative parameters such as the length of service, the number of published articles etc. The publication sources are taken into consideration only by the Supreme Assessment Committee in the case of awarding academic degrees. Few Universities consider more than just the number of articles for promoting purposes.

Evaluation is also factual rather than analytical. While the fact of availability of an academic degree is taken into consideration for promotion, it is eventually confirmed or awarded not by Universities, but by the Supreme Assessment Committee. So the Universities are not positioned to take an analytical approach to academic degrees but are simply to accept the fact.

Certain steps have been taken by some institutions to establish a higher degree of rigor for increasing quality of education. But they still have a random nature and are mostly done on an ad hoc basis.

Evaluation must be meaningful and useful for the faculty member and for those who conduct it. In order to be meaningful, the evaluation must have outcomes; in order to be useful, it must provide the faculty member with feedback that is sufficiently clear to allow for improvement when necessary. This means that no evaluation can be efficient unless it is systematic.

Evaluation must be conducted in the context of an agreed upon set of activities and expectations. But evaluation should not be carried out a faculty member's merits outside his/her environment. It should be designed to reveal the degree to which a faculty member or an administrator makes contribution to the functioning of his/her department/unit and of the University as a whole. It should also be a fare process, which also looks at to what extent a faculty member's workload allows him/her to do it.

One of the most important goals of evaluation should be aimed at making the teaching personnel happy at their work place and building a "trust atmosphere". Without these two the learning outcomes will not improve. For example, certain procedures should be in place to review the specific "beyond-the control" cases, which interrupt the quality delivery at higher educational institutions beyond the control of the performer, such as illness, childbirth, illness of immediate family members, loss of relatives or other events, which would disrupt a flow of action in normalcy. If there were certain rules established to protect professors from a rating drop in the cases when they cannot perform due to such serious problems, there would be a system, which would enable to apply certain standards to resolving such cases. Definitely, this does not mean that the reasons are not taken into consideration when failure occurs due to similar circumstances. However, the existence of established procedures would certainly produce a systematic rather than an individual approach to the problem, and would create an assurance among the teaching personnel of their protection from "force-major" events. Such assurance also controls the quality of the teaching process in a better way, since it protects from a rushed "cover-up" for a non-performance, or poor performance, period.

For example, the evaluation process at many US Universities takes an account of a procedure according to which a faculty member may request to "stop the tenure clock" (for up to one year) when circumstances exist that interrupt the faculty member's normal progress toward building a case for tenure. Reasons to "stop the clock" will typically be of a personal or family nature; examples may include childbirth or adoption, care of dependents, medical conditions, or physical disasters or disruptions.

An integral part should be students' involvement in the evaluation process. Such an initiative is being taken by Universities, but again, more research is needed to make the process more efficient, the students' opinions more reliable, and the students' participation in the overall quality process more active.

Accreditation challenges

Academic quality assurance is bound with eventual accreditation of Universities by recognized accrediting bodies. The Ministry of Education has created an accrediting body, which is obligatory for all Universities, but this does not yet mean that ensuring and controlling quality will be real in Azerbaijan in the near future. Ideally, licensing of Universities by the Ministry of Education would be able to replace accreditation through which Universities worldwide go for enhancing their reputation. Theoretically, licensing of Universities in Azerbaijan, for example, would seem even more rigorous than accreditation of Universities by international accrediting organizations because the former is obligatory while the latter is not. But here is where mystery lies. What is obligatory cannot create sound market competition, while what is voluntary can produce a real contest for excellence, which is the first and foremost condition for quality.

Real, world standard and principled accreditation would be the most obvious indication of quality. In this transition period, quality in education cannot be reliably measured by local accrediting procedures. First, there process is bound with lack of experience in the field. The Ministry of Education is recognizing the fact, and is making true efforts to involve international expertise, both for the purpose of training local experts and for the purpose of creating and implementing the procedures. First of all, it is necessary to define academic standards and quality, which should be recognized internationally. The entire process should have started with this step.

Lack of experience in the filed is also manifested by the inefficiency of the measures for assessing quality. For example, critical, analytical self- assessment, which would be far from simple narration, is not part of the process yet. It would not be sufficient to simply report on "who is doing what"; self-assessment would be bore reliable if it answered the question of "why we are doing so" and "how do we know that we are doing right".

The technique for the implementation also creates difficulties. The Universities, for example, are required to complete the process during 6 months, which is naturally insufficient given the complexity of the process and lack of experience on the side of the Universities.

A reason for sustained poor outcome by some Universities is motivation behind accreditation initiatives. Two motives are dangerous: the assumption that it is a formal process, and the University should just go through it in order to comply with its reporting obligation; and an attempt to create a public image and thus to recruit more students and more donors. That local accreditation could not be relied upon is also due to the missing context of trust in higher education. However, although this is a harsh reality, and not only in Azerbaijan, no procedures have been created to measure the degree of formality by Universities while complying with the required procedures. With this in mind, a certain place should be allotted to accountability within accreditation. Accountability should provide an assessment of an institution's effectiveness in the fulfillment of its mission, its compliance with the requirements of its accrediting association, and its continuing efforts to enhance the quality of student learning and its programs and services.

There are certain elements in the context of implementation of the credit system, which hinders full control of the quality. Although the credit system is on the surfaces level is expressed quantitatively (as the number of hours, number of credits etc.), there is quality behind any numbers. While the implementation of the credit system is underway, it is performed mainly at the quantitative level, sometimes simply by assigning credit numbers to subjects. A deeper thought should be given to how these numbers are come up with, and to what their carrying value is. One indicator of this is the grading scale, which makes much less rigorous requirements for excellence: in a 100-score scale, "A" stands between 86 and 100. This produces over 70% "honour" students - an indicator, directly contradicting accreditation expectations.

Last, but not the least, a lion's share from the State budget should be allocated to establish strong infrastructure and create quality human resources, especially under the circumstances which do not allow State Universities to raise their own funds. Accreditation is ridiculous to mention when such infrastructure and resources, which would support quality education, are not in place. Accreditation is not merely logical without the Universities' real capabilities to fund sound, marketable research, to build its library, a computer pool, or to sustain a well-trained personnel.

 

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