Quality and the market

In the report, Dimensions of Quality, Graham Gibbs (former Director of the Oxford Learning Institute at the University of Oxford) synthesised significant research over the last 30 years or so that identified valid success factors in undergraduate education.  It attempted to identify what data we should take seriously when making judgements about the quality of learning and teaching and associated resourcing.  Much more than input and output, what mattered most were process variables – what institutions do with their resources for the students they have.

In late 2012 he published another report, Implications of ‘Dimensions of Quality’ in a market environment, which considered how institutions are variously responding to demand driven, data based markets as they attempt to improve market share, quality and value for money.

Sound familiar?

Both reports draw evidence form the USA, Australia and elsewhere, but the higher education system Gibbs was most interested in was the UK’s.  So as the Australian sector increasingly focuses on the market to drive quality, is there anything we can learn?  Probably.

Implications found that reputation still dominates even though this is an invalid indicator of educational quality and institutions with already high reputations have a vested interest in resisting the introduction of more valid indicators.  It found that quality assurance in most institutions overlooked the most crucial indicators of quality, namely: class size, who does the teaching and the contact students have with them, learning resources, feedback, collaborative learning, and belonging and engagement.

Gibbs went on to look at the practical consequences of the data market and the ways in which institutions are reacting.  He observed a retreat from the unitised system toward program level organisation and assessment; quality enhancement focused at the team level (along with reward and recognition for leadership in teaching and learning); new processes for institutional change (including things like changing the students’ role from consumers to partners); a focus on hygiene factors and service delivery; promotion of institutional distinctiveness; and a re-built emphasis and systemic infrastructure for teaching (one that aligned things like recruitment, initial training, promotion, resources, library, priorities, etc.)

If, as the Minister for Education expects, the market will drive quality I believe these two reports offer much in providing us with a glimpse of a possible future, its opportunities, and mistakes to avoid.  There is more in them than I can summarise here and I leave it to you to consider where we are and will be in the years hence.

One thought on “Quality and the market”

  1. With TEQSA now being directed to abandon its quality assessment activities, we are likely to see the re-emergence of the conditions that gave rise in 2000 to the MCEETYA protocols for Higher Education Approval Processes (now largely codified in the HE Standards, particularly the Provider Standards) and, around the same time, the Australian Universities Quality Agency (AUQA, which TEQSA replaced with the implementation of the Bradley recommendations).

    This time, however, it won’t be State-to-State inconsistencies driving the drift from quality, but the market itself. This is because (as Simon Marginson has pointed out – see his piece in The Conversation back in May), the HE market is positional – that is, the attractiveness of an institution to “the market” is not based on hard (or any) data on the quality of its teaching programs but on its reputation – and this, in turn, at least in Australia, is based mainly on its age and dominance of research funding – hence the high status of Go8 vs “the rest”, with the new (mostly “Dawkins”) universities regarded as occupying the lowest tier in the university sector, at least. It’s hard to see how that will change just by exposing universities to greater market competition – the only change I can see is that there will be competition on the basis of price at the lower-status end – mainly universities vs private providers. At that end of the market, competition on price will drive quality down, not up.

    At the high-status end, there is simply very little market competition – most Australian capital cities have only one Go8 institution, if that – the two largest cities have two each and a market large enough to support them both. What competition there is at this end of the market will not depend on the quality of their teaching programs (all at this level are relatively well-resourced and can attract good staff, and they tend to have lower SSRs and casualisation rates than the rest) and will not depend on price (indeed it will be seen as more prestigious to charge more). It will, instead, depend on them maintaining their reputation by chasing that top-50 international ranking that the Minister and PM say they want – and THAT depends on research. And clever marketing.

    So what happens to quality with respect to academic teaching programs? The high end of the market will be regarded by TEQSA as very low-risk and will do the minimum necessary – without an external detailed audit program, responsibility will be devolved internally and faculties will more and more “do their own thing”. There will be a loss of consistency at institutional level and because of that it will be impossible to compare institutions sensibly or hold them to a sectoral standard. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does leave students-as-customers as the only real driver of program quality – they will be paying big money and will want value for it. I would argue that customer satisfaction is not a great basis for determining program quality either.

    The lower end of the market will battle to maintain high L&T standards in a price-based competition. That’s a race to the bottom.

    And in the middle will be institutions like ours, trying to compete on both status at the upper end and price at the lower. This is, perhaps where program quality will become a bit more of a factor, with the status-seeking but somewhat price-sensitive section of “the market” who may well look more deeply into program quality when making their spending decision. The replacement for the MyUni website won’t help them much.

    It’s really going to be worthwhile for universities in this position to ensure that they have robust, defensible, interpretable, evidence-based systems of QA and QE, so that they can market their programs to that section of the market that is most likely to care.

    Bring it on!!

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