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How do higher education institutions use internal quality assurance for quality improvement?

Michaela Martin and Christine Emeran

A result of the rapid expansion and diversification of the higher education sector is that academic quality has come under greater scrutiny. The development of internal quality assurance (IQA) systems by higher education institutions (HEIs), as a means of monitoring and managing quality, constitutes one of the most important reform initiatives to address this concern.


Higher education institutions (HEIs) confront a number of challenges in IQA design, such as choosing an appropriate focus, integrating IQA tools into a cost-effective and coherent system, considering graduate employability, and finding an appropriate balance between centralized and decentralized structures. For these reasons, a demand exists for reliable empirical knowledge about how to make IQA effective while sustainable for the enhancement of quality and relevant for higher education in different national and institutional contexts.


UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP) research on internal quality assurance

To provide more knowledge on factors that condition IQA, IIEP, in coordination with the International Association of Universities (IAU), conducted an international survey to understand the purpose, orientation, structures, tools and processes, drivers, and obstacles of IQA practices in HEIs worldwide. In addition, IIEP conducted case studies on eight universities to document good principles and innovative IQA practices, analyze their effects, and identify factors (both internal and external) that contribute to an effective IQA system. The universities studied under the project are: American International University (Bangladesh), University of Duisburg-Essen (Germany), University of Talca (Chile), Daystar University (Kenya), University of the Free State (South Africa), Xiamen University (China), University of Bahrain (Bahrain), and Vienna University of Economics and Business (Austria).


This research followed a multi-stakeholder approach in the primary data collection to compare different actor groups’ perspectives on IQA, such as academic and administrative staff, students, and academic and administrative leaders. In each of the case universities interviews were held with university leadership at different levels, focus groups discussions with programme directors and students and survey conducted with academic and administrative staff. The overall purpose of the research was to highlight approaches to IQA and study their effectiveness with a view to providing good principles to inspire other HEIs to better design and implement an IQA system.


Benefits of Internal Quality Assurance

The research project revealed that, in the institutions examined, IQA has initiated a large set of reforms, particularly, in the domain of teaching and learning that has generally improved the coherence of study programmes and its alignment with labour market needs. In addition, as an IQA effect, management processes were streamlined and better integrated with data analysis and evaluation.


The research data also found a number of common factors for success, although they largely depend on the context of each individual institution and modes of implementation. Overall, the participating universities agreed that leadership support, stakeholder involvement, IQA integrated with strategic planning and an effective management information system were of tremendous importance. Leadership support was identified by both academic and administrative staff as a necessary and commonly present factor in the case universities in facilitating the integration of centralized and decentralized management of IQA. Linking IQA with decision-making can close the loop at three levels: individual level; academic programmes, and strategic planning of the whole university. Indeed, strategic planning provides a framework of orientations and goals, including on quality, at all levels towards which IQA works most effectively if all levels are engaged.


Lastly, the effectiveness of the IQA system also relied heavily on the level to which students and staff were aware of and involved in its processes and tools. For instance, programme reviews and job market analysis were found effective if they incorporated employer recommendations to revise academic programmes in line with employment needs. In terms of limits, students and staff felt that they did not receive enough feedback from certain IQA tools, such as course evaluations or student satisfaction surveys, the study found. In addition, the data from certain tools was not always used for maximum benefit by all stakeholders. For instance, the results of graduate tracer studies were predominantly used by management rather than academics who are in charge of the revision of study programmes.


Overall, the study concluded that IQA is most effective if it leads to a regular internal dialogue on quality. A dialogue that fosters a quality culture that is also the ultimate purpose of IQA and will contribute to improved academic quality and graduate employability.


Visit here for more information on this study.


Michaela Martin and Christine Emeran work on higher education issues at the UNESCO International Institute for Education Planning (IIEP-UNESCO).


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