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The Quality Movement discourse in the higher education sector - A general review

Author - Aidan Kenny


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In the typography outlined in Table 2 I attempt to create a snapshot of some of the gradual turning points in the development and dissemination of ‘Quality’ in its many forms in the industrial, business, economic and political sectors. I utilise Rostow's Stages of Economic Development model to draw a parallel between the turning points in the Quality Movement’s ideological development. While Rostow’s model may be critiqued now, it was prominent during the periods listed in Table 2. I caution that this is only a speculative, or loose-fit model. Its only purpose here is to highlight the fact that no work practice or management philosophy happens in isolation from the broader multi-dimensional external environment drivers and power blocs, particularly within the ‘capitalist mode of production’.

Thus far I have provided generic indicators that signpost the major shifts in the ‘quality’ paradigm. The information is descriptive rather than scientific and speculative connections are made. My main focus was to direct the reader’s attention to ‘Quality’ as a movement, its evolution and the economic mode of production – capitalism – from which it emerged. This brief historical context on quality as a tool within the capitalist ideology should assist in the critical analysis of superimposing an ‘economic mode’ onto an ‘educational mode’, or business quality models upon the higher education sector. The 1996 article by Halstead and Taylor identifies the above shift, distinguishing between the fundamental goals and values of education and whether they are located in the domain of economic liberalism or political liberalism. Duff et al. (2000a: 21) claim that ‘[t]he methods and language of quality assurance, quality improvement and enhancement and quality audit, pioneered in industry and business have been applied to higher education in many countries across the world over the past fifteen to twenty years’ (see also Srikanthan and Dalrymple 2003 for a detailed account of the use of the business model in education). I question whether the introduction of quality as a tool in the higher education sector is yet another step in the industrialisation and ‘commodification’ of education and a further nail in the coffin of academic freedom. To address these issues it is worth reviewing some of the academic literature from the higher education sector in the USA and UK, which has evolved into a substantial body of work.

Quality reviews in higher education: the literature

The theory and practice-in-action, or ‘praxis’, of quality reviews in the higher education sectors internationally has a comparatively long tradition, particularly in the USA (El-Khawas and Shab 1998: 95). The two authors carried out a comparative study of quality reviews in which they distinguished between internal and external orientated reviews and compared case studies of models in the USA with those in operation in Europe. They claim that the practice of internal quality reviews has a longer history than the emerging statutory requirement for external reviews. Answering their own question about whether reviews should be of either a monitoring or improvement focus, they suggest ‘mutuality’ as a best practice approach that takes account of the concerns of academia and the legitimate concerns of others. Harvey (1997: 134) suggests that the traditional approach to quality reviews was internal, with an emphasis on developing ‘excellence’ in the programme, department or discipline. However, he notes there are is tension and some ‘scepticism’ among academics in relation to the drive for external reviews with a focus on accountability and ‘value for money’. He claims that ‘Quality’ which encompasses ‘control’ and ‘monitoring’ mechanisms is ‘intrusive’ to ‘academic autonomy’ and to Quality itself. From his research and experience he claims that the internal review is more advantageous, ‘not so much for the outcomes it produces but for the very process of dialogue and reflection it sets in train’ (Harvey 1997: 135). In essence he argues that quality in his opinion is not about control or excellence, but rather, ‘quality is about transformation’ (1997: 137). He entrenches his line of reasoning in the micro dynamic student–lecturer relationship and the ‘transformative learning process’ that derives from this interaction. He doesn’t accept the notion of a student as a customer buying into a service or product, but rather as a participant in a transformational process. This process should be both ‘participant enhancing’ – leading to change – and ‘participant empowering’ – taking ownership. However, Binsardi and Ekwulugo (2003: 318) do not accept that the student is not a customer. They perceive the higher education sector as a marketplace in which different countries compete aggressively for their share of the customer base and for international students. They identify Tony Blair’s 1999 initiative to attract international students as a ‘UK marketing campaign and penetration in the world markets of international education’. Table 3 provides a snapshot of the international student market share of the top three countries as of 2000.


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