The study ‘We’re stubborn enough to create our own world’ (Weenink, Aarts, & Jacobs, 2021) addresses how directors of educational programs understand and enact higher education quality in interdependence with its environment. It reveals that the directors’ room to play out their quality views depends on their position within the academic hierarchy and that they flexibly adjust the notion of quality to limiting circumstances. Whereas quality’s plasticity and vague appeal enabled the rearrangement of academic steering relations in the 1980’s and 1990’s, it currently prevents structural changes at a more fundamental level.
Little is known about how the complex notion of higher education quality is understood and (strategically) handled by a specific group of key university actors: directors of educational programmes. We therefore conducted a framing analysis of in-depth interviews to explore how bachelor-programme directors in Dutch social science departments understand and enact quality, while maintaining multiple commitments. The role of programme director was fulfilled by academics in different institutes, fields and positions, ranging from administrative support staff and assistant professors to associate professor and full professor. Drawing upon the work of sociologist Norbert Elias on human figurations (Elias, 1970), relationships, policies and interdependencies that were considered crucial in their quality work were assessed.
‘Quality is not problematic at all’
The study finds that directors initially share a non-problematic understanding of quality as realising a good educational programme. The continuous alignment with one another of the programme’s goals, means and assessment was thereby considered key and the directors ‘do not find that problematic at all’.
Tensions in practice
Programme directors however experience issues in achieving quality in practice.
‘Yes, well, I think that we pretty much agree with each other on ‘what quality actually is’, to put it like that. When we think we have delivered a good student. But given our resources, how can we achieve that in the best way? Well, I find that a quest. My feeling is also that the frameworks are still getting more and more narrow.’
Constraints such as limited budgets, and academic interdependencies and hierarchies hinder them in realizing their quality views. Governmental budgetary restrictions were heavily criticised and ‘more money!’ was on the tip of their tongues when they were asked what would really improve educational quality. Money is time and more hours enable intensive classes and contacts, which apparently contribute to higher quality. The directors dealt with budgetary and other issues within their institution. Several considered it their task to handle the budget as efficiently as possible.
‘It is of course very easy to say, ‘we’ll throw in more lecturers, and more time’. That will surely improve the quality. But we have only a limited amount of money, so I have to balance the two.’
The quality of different courses and elements were weighed against one another.
‘If you want to supervise this individual thesis, that goes at the expense of . . . it’s a real optimisation problem!’
The interviews indicated furthermore that directors experienced issues in balancing education in interdependence with research. Lecturers were often researchers and the tension field was framed as ‘just time’. Intensifying education was, however, found to be achieved at the expense of research time and often valued less.
‘You are of course talking about “educational burden” and “research time”. That makes a big difference!’
Education and research were often articulated hierarchically in relation to each other and several interviewees stated that lecturers’ careers still depended on research performance, even when lecturers considered teaching essential.
Tensions were furthermore perceived in their dependence on lecturers to deliver good courses. Most directors noted that lecturers and course coordinators should be trusted in their professional autonomy. However, the interviews also revealed tensions and contrasting frames. ‘One cynical lecturer can ruin a whole course’. The directors were held responsible for educational quality but had a limited view on what happened in practice and lecturers maintained their own views and multiple commitments.
Responsibility without power
The results also suggest that the directors’ room for maneuver to enact their quality frames depended on their specific, power-ridden figurations within academia and differed per position.
Tensions with budgets, other programmes and research concerned the situated educational process but were played out in hierarchical relationships, as the directors depended on managers’ decisions about resources and on professors about learning assignments. Directors at professor and associate professor level were ‘playing the game’ in both the managerial and the situated context, and they were engaged in hiring new staff.
‘If I leave this to the professor who is responsible for the research programme, there will be all research-hotshots hired, who mainly want to do research. And if I look at the quality of my programme, I want someone who is intrinsically motivated, preferably for education. Who also has the skills. So, we have to ask for attention on that, and that is the kind of game being played.’
Several directors with the position of assistant professor or a support staff position however noted that ‘we are very much in the position that we have responsibility without power’. They lacked discretionary powers, and were oftentimes acting in the role of coordinator. Academics with the position of associate and full professor displayed more space to play out their quality perspectives, but some also mentioned a lack of space, especially in comparison to research directors.
Quality is a broad notion
To uphold their programme as well as their own position, directors put their efforts into those quality aspects that they could change if they could not improve what they wanted to. In one institute, the director and the institutional management felt that they could not act upon the programme as they wanted to, as renowned research groups were protecting their education and specialisations against change. He argued, however, that he did achieve quality improvement. ‘Well, I caught up on the things where I could make a difference’. Quality’s multiplicity and plasticity provided the flexibility to maintain the notion of quality improvement, even though it changed what they considered quality.
The study draws attention to how quality is played out in academic hierarchical figurations. Although directors’ room for maneuver is related to their formal rank, it is worthwhile to further investigate how it relates to how the academic order is being shaped. Gender differences, but also the tendency to value research over education, do seem to play a role here and also to affect the directors’ room for maneuver in relation to other figurational actors, specifically their near colleagues. Such aspects are also dynamic, multiple and multifaceted. It would be interesting to study how the valuation of higher education quality relates to other valuation processes in academia.
Kasja Weenink (MA) is conducting a PhD. on the realization of higher education quality in different contexts at the Institute for Science in Society, Radboud University Nijmegen (The Netherlands), supervised by Dr. Sandra Jacobs (Amsterdam School of Communications Research, University of Amsterdam) and Prof. Dr. Noelle Aarts (Institute for Science in Society, Radboud University Nijmegen).
Elias, N. (1970). What is Sociology? (S. Mennell, G. Morrissey, & R. Bendix, Eds.) (1978th ed.). New York: Columbia University Press.
Weenink, K., Aarts, N., & Jacobs, S. (2021). “We’re stubborn enough to create our own world”: How bachelor directors frame higher education quality in interdependency. Quality in Higher Education, 00(00), 1–20. https://doi.org/10.1080/13538322.2021.2008290