Quality in higher education : stories of English and Czech academics and higher education leaders
thesisposted on 10.01.2017, 04:34 authored by Mertova, Patricie
The subject of quality has been a pervasive issue on the agenda in higher education around the world for more than a decade. A greater focus on quality in higher education resulted from a range of competing factors, among the most prominent were: political control over higher education (exerted particularly by national governments), the growth in the number of students in higher education (including general changes in the student population and their expectations) and financial control on the part of national governments (frequently related to the previous two factors). Quality monitoring has become a mechanism for governments worldwide to tackle these competing factors. However, at the same time, it can be argued that it was frequently employed to disguise the dominant focus on accountability in higher education rather than on enhancement. Many of the quality assurance models and systems applied to higher education originated in the business and manufacturing sectors. They have often been found unsuitable or only partially suitable for the higher education sector, because they largely disregarded the nature of higher education and its employees, in particular the academics. It may be argued that the quality movement has driven higher education more towards greater uniformity, which may be detrimental to what was understood as the “real” quality in higher education. For instance, innovation was regarded as an important aspect of academic work. Nevertheless, the present quality development drive seems to be working against the nature of academic work. Given this background, it is alarming that the academic voice seems to have had little impact to date on the development of quality systems in higher education. Therefore, the present thesis attempted to investigate the academic voice concerning higher education quality. Overall, this thesis had two main objectives. First, based on the analysis of stories of academics and higher education leaders, the thesis endeavoured to construct a framework of significant quality issues for the potential use in future policy development in higher education in the two countries investigated in this research (the Czech Republic and England), and prospectively in other higher education systems around the world. In particular, it aimed to introduce more human-centred measures into the area of higher education quality. Second, in terms of developing a methodology, the thesis attempted to illustrate the way in which a critical event narrative inquiry study of heterogeneous and complex environments, such as higher education, could be undertaken. Employing such a critical event narrative inquiry approach, the researcher endeavoured to highlight important aspects of higher education quality, which have been largely overlooked in the area, and thus assist the improvement of the practice of quality development in higher education. The study utilised face-to-face interviews with academics and higher education leaders concerning their perceptions of the issue of higher education quality. The researcher anticipated that eliciting of “critical events” through interviews with individuals involved in the area of quality in higher education (academics and higher education leaders) would uncover some important aspects in higher education quality which would not be revealed using other more traditional empirical methods of inquiry, particularly quantitative research methods. To investigate the area of higher education quality, the researcher elected to look into the English and Czech higher education systems. The choice of the English higher education system was influenced by the knowledge that England, and more generally the UK, was among the first countries in the world, and certainly the first in Europe, to introduce a formal quality assurance system into higher education. Australia followed this trend soon after it was introduced in the UK. The researcher elected the Czech higher education system, as a culturally different educational system, distinctive from the Anglo-Saxon educational tradition, and which is uniquely placed on the divide between Western and Eastern Europe. In this respect, the critical event narrative inquiry method was proposed as a suitable method for the investigation of significant aspects of cultural difference. Employing the critical event narrative inquiry method, the researcher uncovered a number of significant issues. Some of these issues were identified by English and Czech academics and higher education leaders as not featuring strongly in their countries’ current higher education quality enhancement practices, and yet they were regarded as important by the academics. Some of the issues uncovered in this research, on the other hand, were highlighted as impacting negatively on the quality enhancement processes in their respective higher education systems. There were a number of issues which were identified as common to both the English and Czech higher education systems. These issues might have been an indication of potential wider relevance of such trends among a broader range of higher education systems worldwide. This thesis proposed a framework for a human-centred approach to quality enhancement in higher education based on issues which were common to both English and Czech higher education systems. This framework featured: • Regard for the academic voice in higher education quality policy development; • Attention to human-centred aspects of higher education quality; • Need for a collegial approach and reflection on the purposes of quality evaluation processes; • Equal value afforded to teaching and research; and • Focus on innovation and change. There were also some culture-specific issues uncovered, particularly in relation to the Czech higher education system. These culture-specific issues may be relevant to certain common trends and features in other higher education systems in Central and Eastern European regions. In this respect, the thesis proposed a framework for a human-centred approach to quality enhancement with regard to culture-specific issues. The framework focused specifically on Czech higher education and may be of potential relevance to other Central and Eastern European higher education systems. This framework included: • The significance of transparency in educational processes; • The need for a fundamental change in the style of pedagogy in higher education institutions; to focus more on thinking processes and reasoning; • The need for a more systematic move towards a student-centred approach across the whole higher education system; • The need to address the factor of pressure on Czech academics to publish mainly in English in order to receive international recognition; and • The need for education of Czech academic staff to enable a broader and better understanding of the concept of higher education quality in the context of the Czech higher education system. Investigation of the academic voice in English higher education did not reveal any culture-specific issues. In other words, the English academics and higher education leaders did not identify any issues in higher education quality that were distinctively different from the general issues highlighted also by Czech academics and higher education leaders. Some of the issues pointed out in the English context occurred on a more advanced level due to the different historical, political and socio-economic context of the UK higher education. It appears that quality in higher education is here to stay. As such, it is essential for the future of higher education that quality enhancement be based on education-focused approaches. Overall, this thesis proposed a human-centred approach to quality enhancement as one way of attaining educational focus.