The first question to address is ‘What is quality in the context of education and training?’ Quality, after all, is subjective and it is an individual’s perception of a particular product or service and this in turn is influenced by what they experience and what they think. People may not agree on what constitutes quality, but they have a common idea of what it involves. It is about values and these critically depend on a wide range of factors that operate at particular times for that individual. Education is also concerned with a complex blend of production and service approaches for its students and other users. One absolutely essential point to make is the fundamental difference between manufacturing and human resource based companies. Simplistic comparisons with wide-ranging transplantation and adoption of industrial quality systems is flawed. Too often the management gurus encourage a universal approach to organisations without due regard being given to the differing cultures and practices. The practices and processes are very different between human resource services (health, prison and education) and manufacturing enterprises (widget production).
As a result of this ambiguity in how to define quality, there have been a number of attempts to establish working definitions and hence approaches to improvement and these include:
- fitness for purpose
- compliance to the requirements
- zero defects – ‘right first time’.
- delighting the customer.
Many of these approaches have been widely adopted by organisations and very often they adopt very simplistic and mechanistic procedures and a number of these have also been adopted by sponsors of further education colleges. Therefore, colleges have to deal with a multitude of quality interventions, many of which do not fit comfortably with what most colleges are attempting to develop in their own total quality systems for learners, staff and other users of colleges’ products and services. A number of these existing quality assurance interventions are predominantly about past and current practices in teaching and learning and as such do not adopt a forward looking model in terms of the ‘learners of the future’. Traditional provision focuses on time-served courses comprising full qualifications/awards. The learner of the future will need very different approaches, the programmes of study being increasingly unitised and modular in their form. The learners themselves will be seen as ‘interrupters’ – by this I mean that they will enter, exit and then re-enter study throughout their lives. This fact is very much a characteristic of life-long learning. The traditional focus does create difficulties in adopting a whole college/staff approach and commitment to lifelong learners through a college’s Quality Assurance (QA) system.
One of the key challenges for colleges currently is how they manage and deal with these interventions whilst maintaining their own quality systems and approaches. It often helps to bear in mind a number of quotations when one is attempting to define and operate quality:
• The bitterness of poor quality lingers long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten, (the antithesis of ‘delighting the customer’?).
• An organisation only begins to learn when it loses its arrogance, (i.e. the learning organisation that values zero-defects and delighting the customer).
• The closer the customers are to you the further they are away from your competitors, (i.e. a positive way of responding to ‘market forces’ and providing for lifelong learning).
• Students perceptions are paramount, (i.e. satisfied learners are more likely to be retained, succeed and return).
• The development of quality is a journey and not a destination, (encourages continuous attention to the needs of learners and counters institutional arrogance and complacency).
• Emphasis is on prevention not detection, (example of zero defects? – right first time).
• Total quality is never achieved.
(The pursuit of quality is a journey and not a destination.)
It is essential to realise that the development of a quality culture does take time and cannot ever be fully realised. The external environment is constantly changing, often in an unpredictable way, because of the major transformations that are occurring globally in employment and society. Institutions that broadcast that they have achieved perfect QA are, to say the least, being naive.
These quotations provide an effective set of reference points to college managers as they develop quality systems. Too often they can become obsessed with measuring quality (i.e. if it moves measure it!) by using efficiency performance indicators and, as a result, lose sight of the effectiveness for the learners, the staff and other users.
Many of the interventions that colleges have to deal with are very often of a mechanistic and audit approach by way of ‘tick-and-flick’ activities. Initially many of the TECs interpreted Total Quality Assurance: Standard Management (TQASM) in different ways and a number adopted an audit approach simply using check lists. Some colleges deal with more than one TEC and this variation of practice produced a number of problems for these colleges. Recently the TECs have been required to adopt a more standardised approach to TQASM. However one defines quality, it must be totally owned by all staff and users and be totally pervasive through the college. It must be about constant quality improvement and any assessment of it must involve an appropriate balance of quantitative and qualitative evidence.
Following incorporation, colleges were increasingly exposed to a free market approach, which has most certainly led to a number of positive benefits, but also a number of negative ones. In order to compete more effectively with competitors, quality systems have become increasingly important, following, quite rightly, greater accountability to their sponsors and Funding Councils. However, the current climate is very volatile and uncertain and is full of contradictory and paradoxical policies, many of which have been introduced by the Government. All these factors make it increasingly difficult to plan and manage institutions, let alone maintain and improve the quality of provision, as the funding regimes require doing ‘more for less’.
A management approach that is appropriate for these times is the parenthesis model. This is shown in figure 1. Basically the model stresses the need for managers not only to manage their organisation but to be aware and manage the external environment. In other words, the model argues that managers need to perceive the broader societal and corporate implications of their managerial functions.
Figure 2 shows in more detail such key players active in the external environment. Many of these operate contradictory policies which interact with each other and most certainly with the College. The National Targets require the improvement in achievement of qualifications for people in work or those hoping to enter employment. The true harvest is mature students and yet current policies make it increasingly difficult to recruit such students e.g. the continuing uncertainty about the ’16 hour rule’, the introduction of the Job Seekers Allowance and the demise of discretionary awards. The negative outworkings of this so-called ‘free market’ e.g. cut-throat competition, also create difficulties for colleges attempting to plan over a long period of time whilst maintaining quality and contributing to the targets. The free market philosophy most certainly weakens the contractual details with funding sponsors, business associates and partners and can raise fundamental issues associated with ethics, loyalty, etc. A key challenge for an institution and its managers is how to plan and manage the current and future situation, particularly as it relates to provision for learners of the future and the maintenance and improvement of quality systems for all the services and products that are offered to its learners and other users.
Factors that currently operate for FE colleges and will have increasing significance in the future must also be considered carefully as one attempts to manage an FE Institution.
• Larger student numbers.
• Changes in enrolment patterns.
• Increased diversity as an aspect of the larger number and range of institutions/providers.
• The introduction of new programmes of study.
• Increased diversity within the student population.
• Changes in the structure of the academic year.
• Changes in the mode and structure of provision, for example, modularity, unitisation and work-based learning.
• Changes and innovations in teaching and learning – impact of the new learning technologies.
• Changes in assessment regimes e.g. NVQ, GNVQ, Internal and External Verification.
• The need to redefine teaching and learning.
• Increasing pressure on resources, particularly arising from the convergence regimes in funding that are currently being imposed.
• Changes in conditions of service for staff
Many of these factors reflect that quality is about the experience and achievement of the learners in the future.
As mentioned above, FE colleges are involved in a number of quality approaches and interventions. Some of these are voluntary, while others are compulsory. Below is provided a list of possible quality systems that Colleges are expected to manage:
- Common Accord.
- FEFC Assessing Achievement.
- Higher Education Quality Council (HEQC) (For colleges involved in HE -degrees, HNDs – operates an audit of quality
- GNVQ Quality Framework
- Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) (For colleges receiving funding for its HE work /operates an assessment of quality).
- Investors in People (IIP).
- British/International standards (BS5750/IS9000).
A typical college might need to deal with a number of these interventions. At present, none possess any relationship with any other and this gives rise to a massive amount of duplication of effort and a dissipation of an immense amount of resource in responding to diverse requirements. There clearly needs to be a more unified approach in dealing with these interventions which will lead to greater value for money. The cost of operating a multitude of quality systems must be horrendous and there needs to be a concerted effort to introduce greater convergence and unity into these approaches to realise greater value for money and most certainly a more sensible use of diminishing resources that colleges have to manage, and that includes both money and human resource. There surely needs to be a cost-benefit analysis undertaken to ascertain the true costs of all these quality inventions. The key question to ask is: Is it worth all the effort and resource expenditure and does it bring about a lasting, and improving service?
There is currently a major project operated by the North West Government Office (1) which is attempting to establish greater convergence and hence a more unified system for quality assurance. Detailed mapping exercises have been undertaken to highlight commonalities in approaches to see whether or not a basic core can be defined that would be appropriate for all these interventions, and then possibly the need for more specific approaches required by a number of these sponsors and funding councils.
Figure 3 attempts to show this approach.
One of the main vehicles that could make the situation more effective and efficient and could bring about greater unity is self-assessment. A number of the sponsors have introduced pilot approaches to self-assessment, and I will focus specifically on the FEFC’s Inspection approach. The TECs, HEFCE and Ofsted are also looking at this approach. Clearly self-assessment can only be one part of a quality system and for that system to have credibility, it must include external benchmarking in order to validate and develop confidence in the users of a particular institution’s services and products. Any credible quality assurance framework must include elements of externality. External verification/validation is essential to establish that confidence but it must complement the internal and self-assessment systems and realise value for money.
The FEFC self-assessment approach could be more widely adopted over the next few cycles of inspection that the FE colleges will be exposed to. The FEFC Circular 96/12 (FEFC 1996c) proposes a number of options for the next four year inspection cycle.
The basic questions that need to be asked about a self assessment report could be:
- Was it clear and concise?
- Did it provide a realistic evaluation?
- Were the judgements supported by evidence?
- How did the judgements compare with those of the Inspection team?
An interesting point here is, if self-assessment becomes a major instrument for quality assurance, how will this affect the nature of the Inspection service and the roles of the individual inspectors?
Preliminary analysis of assessment reports submitted by colleges brought the following comments:
- ‘Well structured, clear and concise’.
- ‘Clearly identifies strengths and weaknesses’.
- ‘Wide and meaningful consultation with staff, students, governors and employers’.
- ‘Integral with colleges’ cycle of quality assurance’.
- ‘Sound judgements made, supported by evidence’.
Weak self assessment reports solicited the following comments:
- ‘Descriptive rather than evaluative’.
- ‘Insufficient attention was paid to teaching and learning’.
- ‘Insufficient account of students’ achievements’.
- ‘Absence of consultation with staff, students, governors and employers’.
- ‘Lack of reference to colleges’ strategic plans and performance indicators’.
- ‘Failure to identify significant weaknesses’.
- ‘An emphasis on systems rather than their effectiveness’.
- ‘Absence of clear proposals to address weaknesses’.
The FEFC Inspectors accept that self-assessment is not an easy process.
Colleges will need to be supported a great deal through staff development, advice and guidance, in order to develop this very important vehicle of quality assurance.
In order for FE to play its part in lifelong learning it is essential it develops a robust and reliable QA system which stands up to scrutiny by its sponsors and learners. The current quality interventions must be converged and the multitude of sponsors and organisations that do business with the sector must in turn collaborate more fully with each other. It is essential that the awarding/validating bodies work more closely together and adopt common practices, particularly in the areas of vocational qualifications. Closer collaboration is needed, especially as a result of some of the proposals from Dearing (1996) and Capey (1996) reviews, particularly in regard to subset awards.
The development and ultimate success of lifelong learning must be underpinned by effective and efficient quality assurance systems. Quality assurance systems must be about the future of learning. They must recognise the transformations that are occurring as a result of the increasing introduction of the new forms of learning technologies.
(1) For further information about Quality Assurance in Post-16 Education and Training: “Working Towards Convergence” contact: Fran Hulbert, Government Offices N.W., Washington House, New Bailey Street, Manchester, M3 5ER (tel: 0161 952 4000); or Stella Thomas, Stella Thomas Associates, Gayton House, 23 Parkgate Road, Neston, South Wirral, L64 9XF (tel. 0151 3531187).