What is quality in higher education?

By Kaushalya Perera

With more interest in the quality of higher education in Sri Lanka than ever before, and with a pandemic forcing far-reaching changes, this is an opportune time to discuss what quality means for university education.

Quality in state universities

Mention quality in higher education and attention inevitably veers to the state universities functioning under the University Grants Commission (UGC). The foremost complaint about graduates of these universities is their ‘unemployability’. Successive governments and the World Bank have, rather simplistically, equated unemployability with low English proficiency and low computer literacy. Unions and educationists have critiqued this argument, and pointed to the lack of state investment in education as a major reason for their weaknesses. However, from the government’s point of view, the ‘employable’ graduate is to be produced not through state funds (education received a mere 2.1% of GDP in 2018), but through the USD 180 million worth World Bank loans that we have received since 2003.

Other factors associated with employability are strangely missing from this public discourse. What makes a young educated adult ‘unemployable’? One factor can certainly be a lack of employment-worthy knowledge and skills in graduates. To be employable, however, there must be employment opportunities, sorely missing in the country. The solution by current and previous governments has been, other than to absorb large numbers of youth into the state sector, to demand that universities make internal changes. The Fiscal Management Report of 2020, for instance, states that 2021-2030 will be the “Decade of Skills Development”, its objectives simply being to “transform education for better employment, arrest FDIs, and promote skilled migration while reducing unskilled labour migration.” A consequence of this employment wasteland is that people resort to nepotism and cronyism to gain employment. These consequences of (a lack of) governance are generally unaddressed, as FUTA’s unsuccessful attempt to stop the recruitment of non-academic staff to universities from Ministry ‘lists’ show.

Measuring quality

The Universities Act No.16 of 1978 vests the UGC with the responsibility of maintaining academic standards of higher educational institutions (section 3) and grants full powers to investigate and initiate changes to do so. Despite this, the World Bank’s first loan cycle to universities in 2003 – titled ‘Improving Relevance and Quality in Undergraduate Education’ – initiated a new quality assurance (QA) process which promised to increase the quality of our graduates by increasing their attractiveness to employers.

The new QA process aims to do so by standardizing higher education, i.e. it will make it possible to assess diplomas and degrees against each other. This is done through the ‘Sri Lanka Qualifications Framework’, which provides the minimum qualifications and other related specifications for degrees (undergraduate and postgraduate) and other programmes, such as diplomas. The authority for this is with the Quality Assurance Council (QAC), currently under the UGC. The mechanism is similar to the UK QA model – ironically, the UK has similar debates to ours on graduate (un)employability and their QA model was designed to help. Quality will be maintained through periodic reviews, using ‘best practices’ and ‘standards’ against which institutions and programmes are evaluated.

Assessing the quality of higher education is indeed a necessity. The devil, however, is in the details as they say. For example, the SLQF describes a graduate, with a four-year degree, as someone who should “demonstrate an advanced knowledge and understanding of the core aspects of the area of study” and “critically analyse data, make judgments and propose solutions to problems.” Their vision for life must “clearly identify where one wants to be and develop long term goals, accordingly.” How can these criteria be evaluated? Advanced knowledge adequate for one profession may not be adequate for another. Solutions accepted by one employer may be rejected by another. In such instances, instead of engaging with the difficult issue of creating measures that can include these subjective criteria, QA processes turn to countable measures.

The quantitative orientation to quality accompanies the corporatization of higher education, a global trend and not unique to Sri Lanka. Universities are required to function like companies, producing corporate plans, annual progress reports, institutional reviews and auditing space and finances, etc. However, the methods of developing intellectual capabilities are not easily assessed through common measurements. Answers to questions such as ‘does your lecturer inspire you to explore a topic?’ or ‘Did the lecturer push you to think critically and develop ethical positions?’ are subjective. Yet, the need for standardized measurements means that the QA process in universities rely on quantitative measures such as the percentage of lecturers using online learning management systems, whether a lecturer distributed course plans at the beginning of the semester, or the percentage of the curriculum completed. The existence of an online learning management system and the number of people using it matters more than what students and lecturers actually do with it. Universities may satisfy QA requirements if they maintain online learning management systems, provide peer review mechanisms or initiate rewards to lecturers in the form of ‘best teacher awards’. While such quantitative measures might be able to give you some inkling of how a university is managed, they cannot help us gauge a student’s actual ability to think creatively or a lecturer’s commitment to teaching well.

This system of course has been critiqued. Across the world, experts have pointed to the pitfalls of adopting metric-based, audit-oriented measures towards education. They stress the dangers of ignoring the role of higher education in creating a socially responsible individual and a caring, politically active population. The most damning evidence on university governance in this manner was published in “The UK higher education senior management survey: A statactivist response to managerialist governance” (Erickson, Hanna and Walker, 2020). Surveying nearly 6,000 staff members, it reported that nearly two decades of corporatized practices in universities have led to a brutal system of metrics, an excessive workload inimical to high quality teaching and research, a culture of silence in academia, the use of institutional funds for vanity projects by senior management, and a high degree of mental health problems in the sector. Since we aim to follow the same processes, the Sri Lankan higher education sector should take note of the results.

Who is exempt from the quality discussion?

The intense attention on UGC headed state universities helps other higher educational institutions in Sri Lanka fly under the radar. One such group is the cluster of state universities functioning under various ministries. For example, two Buddhist universities (the Buddhist and Pali University and the Bhiksu University of Sri Lanka) exist under the Ministry of Education. The Ministry of Vocational and Technical Training oversees the University of Vocational Technology. The General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University functions under the Ministry of Defence. While they are state universities, they function without being bound by regulations governing state universities under the UGC. For example, the KDU admits paying students to certain degree programmes and expects problematic ‘disciplined’ behaviour of its non-military students.

‘Private universities’ registered as companies essentially deliver external degrees on behalf of foreign universities. Even though they deliver content decided by a foreign university to Sri Lankan students, the local institution is not required to justify the award of such degrees in Sri Lanka. Neither the state universities under Ministries, nor the private universities are subject to external academic reviews or questioned on the quality of their lecturers, curricula or pedagogy. They are also not critiqued for a lack of research output.

The need for change

What we need then is a cohesive, far-sighted plan for higher education. Such a plan would take into account not only the financial development of the country but also the emotional, and intellectual development of its people. Beyond doubt then, the first priority would be the allocation of more funds for higher education. All degree-awarding institutions should ideally exist under the central authority of the UGC, or at the very least, must be reviewed by the UGC periodically. While evaluations of quality are necessary, they cannot be done quantitatively. Existing QA mechanisms needs to change from the box ticking, form filling, record keeping system to a more holistic one that deals with quality in qualitative terms. Educational research produced in other parts of the world seeing similar problems can help us with such transitions. None of this will work, however, without higher education (including the UGC) being depoliticised. Public discourse too needs to shift from its simplistic belief in education-for-employment and consider what ‘an educated person’ means and what universities can do towards creating such a person. The sole purpose of education, especially university education, should not be the mere matching of skills to jobs.

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