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Developing a Participatory Consultation Process for Quality Reviews: The initial stage of the European University Associations Quality Review of the Dublin Institute of Technology

Author - Aidan Kenny

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In an `Age of Supercomplexity' (Barnett 1990) change for the university is inevitable. In order to assess and assist institutional change strategies, and provide accountability for national resources allocated to higher education providers, universities are required to instigate cyclical quality reviews of their organization and the services they provide. Hughes (2002: 2) claims `evaluations are firmly embedded in national and international tertiary practice'. The European Network for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA) have produced a document, ‘Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area’ (2005) under the remit of the Berlin communiqué 2003. This document presents a framework for both internal and external quality review procedures and promotes continued quality enhancement policies. Coolahan (2004: 141-145) suggests the process of establishing a European wide Quality Assurance system for education commenced with the signing of the Bologna Declaration in 1999. And the Irish government adopted a proactive participatory response to this endeavour by signing up to the communiqués of Salamanca (2001), Prague (2001) and Berlin (2003).

Under the Qualifications (Education and Training) Act 1999 the DIT is required to undertake a quality review every 5-7 years. The European University Association (EUA) which is a member of the ENQA was commissioned in 2004 to commence a quality review of DIT. The findings from their final report will be presented to the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland (NQAI) in late 2005 and then made public. The EUA requested DIT prepare a Self-evaluation Report during late 2004, as part of the preparation stage of their review process. To this end the DIT established a Steering Committee (SC) to oversee this work and developed a multi-level consultation process to give voice to the members of the DIT community in the Self-evaluation Report

The DIT Steering Committee responsible for the organizing and drafting of the Self-evaluation Report to inform the EUA Quality Review team was established in October 2004 in accordance with the EUA Quality Review Guidelines document (2004: 6). The guidelines state:

  • `… the steering committee should not work in isolation but seek, through institute-wide discussions, to present as broad a view as possible of the DIT'
  • `... support and encourage the process along by explaining its worth’s and allaying fears' (EUA 2004: 6).

To fulfil these aims the SC adopted a process approach based on inclusion, openness and collegial discourse: this mirrored some of the main tenets of a partnership approach, or what Withers calls `the enhancement paradigm of Quality assessment' (2002: 40). All staff and stakeholders where to be included and encouraged to engage with the consultation process. The process had to be open and transparent with a readily accessible information channel. A dynamic mechanism to enable free dialogue and exchange of views and opinions in a safe environment was to be developed. These were the three overarching principles that supported the SC in the development of a consultation process. In order to align with international standards and best contemporary practice the SC adopted the following;

(i) ‘Principles of good practice approach to information and consultation’, from the EU Information and Consultation Directive (2004: see Table 4 in this paper).
(ii) Ethical guidelines suitable for social research/evaluation: underpinning these guidelines is the guarantee of confidentiality, respect, diversity, participation and equality (see Table 5 in this paper).

The author suggests that by adopting these guidelines the SC put in place a framework of expectations and commitments or `psychological contract' Maguire 2002 (Maguire reference Aygre 60; Schein 80; Rousseau 89 for further information related to the psychological contract). Both potential participants and researchers had a set of clear guidelines of what to expect from the consultation process.

The SC, as a team, created a synergy from the expertise of its members, whose specialization ranged from; Arts, Science, Social Science, Technology, Engineering, Construction, Research, Administration and Students. The profile of the SC was representative of a ‘multi-dimensional model’. Membership ranged from senior and middle management, academic staff, administrative staff and students. However the authority/power dichotomy did not impede the collaborative approach: decisions were made by consensus and all members’ input was respected and valued. This process was enhanced by the participation of support staff from Academic Affairs and the secondment of an academic staff member from the Department of Construction Skills, School of Construction, acting as a consultation facilitator. The dynamic of the steering group was cyclical in nature comprising of;

  • Analysing (What had to be done? This was carried out during the SC meetings).
  • Problem solving (How could it be done? Small teams developed solutions and presented them to the SC).
  • Action (implementing the agreed plans, usually carried out by the Academic Affairs support staff, facilitator and SC members).

The outcome from this collaborative team dynamic was the development of a multi-level consultation process which dovetailed the unique qualities of both quantitative and qualitative social research paradigms, `multi-method research', (Morgan cited in Sarantakos 1998: 180), into an applied, practical, action model (see Appendix 1 for a diagram of the consultation process).

The author claims that throughout the development and operationalizing stages the process was informed by the participants experience and expertise rather then a specific theoretical framework. ‘Questions of ontology and epistemology were secondary to method:’ while a research ‘world view’ was not explicitly discussed it was implicit in decisions like adopting the code of ethics and EU Directive. However the process was task focused the primary concern was to agree a method that could meet the deadline set, while capturing a truthful record of the opinions of the DIT community.


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