Quality assurance: The Great Scramble

By Hasini Lecamwasam

As Sri Lanka tumbles further into the abyss of economic misery, pressure on state universities to focus more on quality assurance (QA) increases, supposedly to justify the ‘strain’ they are placing on the public purse. QA purportedly seeks to improve the ‘quality’ of education that state universities deliver, by ensuring certain generalised standards are met and maintained, and extensive documentation is considered evidence of such. Accordingly, universities are scrambling to gather evidence of ‘excellence’; to land a good grade and ranking; to demonstrate they are doing a good enough job for what they are paid; individual departments, to this end, are scrambling to meet ever increasing mountains of documentary requirements; ever tighter deadlines; and ever more exhausting demands from the political arm, the top administration, and from society itself to ‘do more’.

In the current context of a social, political, and economic meltdown, however, we cannot simply ‘bracket out’ the realities around us and continue on with our work inside the university, as though it does not impact what we teach-learn and how we do it. My aim in this brief intervention is to take stock of the objectives and means of QA, and whether it has the capacity to deliver what it promises, particularly in light of the crisis situation.

Flawed premises and false promises

Achieving the stipulated QA standards is assumed to satisfactorily align education with the needs of the job market (specifically by endowing students with the skills and competencies that the market seeks, so they will be hired upon graduation, rendering them “employable”). Educational programmes are expected to refashion their content and methods to this end. However, we seem to continue to respond to the ‘signals’ of a market that is, for all intents and purposes, falling apart. That market in turn is dictated by a larger global economy that is itself showing every sign of going into a recession, in a post-pandemic-shock context. If – or rather, when – foreign markets insulate themselves to cushion the effects of an onset of a recession, we crash head-first into a much bigger crisis given our complete reliance on external markets, as history has demonstrated many a time. The conversation, then, needs to more urgently centre on economic reform, unaccompanied by which QA in education will simply create a stifling employment bottleneck, and/ or further intensify the debilitating brain drain that is currently taking place.

QA has also appropriated progressive terminology such as “expanding access to education”, to make a case for privatisation. Purported as another means of stemming the outflow of capital, privatisation cannot be expected to yield much, as most of the profit will flow back to the global centre: in education, most parent universities of private local degree awarding institutions are located abroad, which would absorb most of the profit; even health, another key area of privatisation, a significant portion of the profit is sucked in by pharmaceutical and medical equipment companies located abroad, largely in the Global North. This is not to mention the capital flight caused by locals who appropriate the remainder of the profit and invest it abroad in tax havens.

It cannot be ignored, too, as to how the QA process is replete with epistemological and political flaws. For one, conceptual issues are reduced to a mere matter of nomenclature. For instance, when I objected to calling education a commodity at a QA meeting, I was told “if you’re not okay with calling it the commoditisation of education, we can call it something else”, as though the problem is with the label rather than the politics of what is espoused!

For another, the generic rubrics developed for assessing very different programmes is problematic to say the least. I do not wish to repeat the concerns flagged in this regard previously on this column and elsewhere. Suffice it to say that developing a generic scheme of rubrics for all programmes, so that reviewers who “don’t have the time to be looking at all the detail” (and in fact the required substantive grasp of the subject matter) can assign grades and rankings defeats the purpose, if the purpose is to ensure any meaningful degree of ‘quality’.

The rubrics, further, are unadapted to the context of the current economic meltdown. It goes without saying that evaluating an institution or a programme using rubrics originally developed and deployed in a ‘normal’ context cannot effectively capture the dynamics of an exceptional situation, and the bearing it has on what is taught, how it is taught, how it is received, and therefore how it should be evaluated. When assessing how a programme ‘has fared’ and assigning it a rank accordingly, it is unjustifiable to overlook the situational constraints imposed first by a raging pandemic and then by an economic crisis of massive proportions, both of which occurred in an already highly unequal distributive landscape, severely impacting what could – or rather could not – be done.

Whither Quality Assurance?

Our preoccupation with QA reflects a great scramble to survive as an institution, in the face of increasing pressures to stay ‘relevant’ in a fast marketising context. However, herein also lies our greatest failure as institutions of higher education: in our inability to raise questions about the greater economic and historical context that shapes this narrative, whose reproduction of colonial hierarchies that privilege global centres of knowledge production, the knowledge they produce, and regional institutions that are best able to demonstrate that they have internalised the former’s logic, has significant implications for the meaningfulness of what we do, politically as well as economically.

I am aware that the crumbling moral case from within the university continues to justify QA interventions. The pervasive hierarchy and the lack of accountability it nurtures are principally responsible for this. However, QA simply deploys this hierarchy to ‘get things done’, and makes it possible to produce a mountain of documentary evidence of ‘work done’, unaccompanied by a substantive evaluation of such, perpetuating mediocrity. The work itself may ultimately not be done, given the additional demands QA places on the time and effort of staff members already struggling to effectively discharge their duties under the strain of an increasingly underfunded system.

The quality that we scramble to assure, therefore, largely fails to realise its purpose, particularly in the current context. The way out of the rut requires work from both parties, i.e. the QA process and the programmes evaluated: the former by way of developing programme, stream, and context differentiated methods of evaluation that place greater emphasis on substantive aspects of programmes. They would ideally place due emphasis on the cultural and situational contexts of programmes as well. As for programmes themselves, more investment by way of time and effort in the education imparted is sorely needed. Both in turn require greater resource allocation by the government, a rather optimistic expectation at a bleak point where privatisation seems sets to completely dismantle free education, with full state sanction.