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The emergence of Quality Assurance in Irish Higher Education
A review of European and national policy and description of the Dublin Institute of Technology practice

Author - Aidan Kenny



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DIT context

The DIT is a comprehensive multi-level higher education provider which has power under the 1999 Qualifications (Education and Training) Act to make its own awards up to Level 10 of the National Framework of Qualification (Ph.D., Doctorate level). The Institute consists of six faculties, caters for 22,000 students annually and employs nearly 1,400 academic staff and 2,200 non academic and support staff. The emergence of the DIT can be located in the vocational education movement in Dublin of 1887. The present statutory position of DIT is set out in the DIT Act 1992. The Act made provisions within the following sections set out in Table 1.

As can be observed from Table 1 no provision was made for quality assurance or evaluation. Section 15 requires the Governing Body to make an annual report on the Institute ‘proceedings’ and the ‘performance of functions’. Section 21 provides for inspections of the Institute to be carried out by Department of Education Inspectors. This is interesting as there is not mention of accountability, summative assessment or quality assurance procedures at the time of this Act. Although the Institute had an obligation to produce annual operational reports which were returned to the City of Dublin Vocational Education Committee (CDVEC) and then forwarded to the Department of Education, and provision was made for Department of Education inspectors to visit the Institute, it was not until the passing of the 1999 (Education and Training) Act that institutional quality reviews were positioned at a legislative basis. Not withstanding this deficiency, the Academic Council of DIT (1994) established a steering committee to review the then current situation in the Institute and identify best practice procedures elsewhere. The context for this exercise was the application for degree-awarding powers to be granted to the HEA (see Duff et al. 2000: 168–170). In December 1994 a draft Quality Assurance Handbook was produced and presented to Academic Council for consideration. Thereafter a series of consultative meetings took place with staff, and a protracted period of negotiations with the Teachers Union of Ireland Dublin Colleges Branch (TUI) ensued. In 1995 the Quality Assurance Handbook was approved and adopted by the Academic Council on a yearly review basis. In relation to international and national policy at the time this was a brave and insightful move by the DIT management. In essence DIT was an ‘early adaptor’.

Evaluation

The Qualifications (Education and Training) Act 1999 sets out the type and focus of the evaluation procedure of DIT’s quality assurance procedures. Section 39 (2) provides as follows:
(a) evaluation at regular intervals and as directed from time to time by the Authority of the programmes of education and training provided by the Institute, including evaluations by persons who are competent to make national and international comparisons in that respect;
(b) evaluation by learners of programmes of education and training provided by the Institute; and
(c) evaluation of services related to the programmes of education and training provided by the Institute, and shall provide for the publication in such form and manner as the Authority thinks fit of findings arising out of the application of those procedures. (see note 5)

To comply with this section of the Act the NQAI and the DIT agreed in 2004 to jointly commission the EUA to undertake a quality review of DIT. The EUA was viewed as an impartial and professional agency that had widespread international experience of carrying out quality reviews. The Directorate of DIT welcomed the EUA’s appointment as the external peer review agency to carry out a quality review of DIT. In essence this was a premeditated move by the DIT and the NQAI. The EUA were undertaking quality reviews of the seven Irish Universities and DIT is not sanctioned by the state as a university. However it is considered different from the IoTs in that it can make it own awards up to Ph.D. level 10 of the National Qualifications Framework (see Coolahan 2004: 84–88 for further details). Therefore, to have the same peer review agency, the EUA, carrying out a quality review of DIT, at the same time that it was reviewing the universities, gives credibility to the contention held by some that the DIT belongs in the same HE cluster as the seven Irish universities. It is worth stressing that this did not happen by chance. The Director of Academic Affairs in the DIT tactically emphasised the importance of applying for membership of the EUA. Furthermore the Academic Registrar and a Development Officer of the NQAI discussed the idea with the EUA in Brussels in 2004. When membership was approved both the DIT and the NQAI requested that EUA carry out the quality review of DIT. Once the EUA agreed to undertake the quality review, Academic Affairs were charged with the responsibility of facilitating the EUA and coordinating the review process.