Academic Quality Assurance in
Jala Garibova -
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
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
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
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.
results, in the long run, in the demoralization of the society. We should
ensure that students perceive education in
But in many cases,
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
is a new concept. Although it has already taken its way from the
strategic planning within higher education focuses mainly on the
It would be an
effective way to start implementing quality assurance with in many post-Soviet
What kind of risks
does this involve in
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.
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
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
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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