Communicating Quality Part 5

With the launch of the new Educational Quality Framework (EQF) and associated policies and procedures, over the coming months we will be highlighting an aspect of the EQF in more detail.
This month we look at Internal Course Accreditations (aka Course Reviews).

Things are changing in higher education at such a rapid pace it is sometimes hard to keep up. New modes of delivery, technological advances, research demands, organisational restructures, competition for funding and socio-economic pressures are proclaimed almost daily and like a giant heaving dinosaur, the archaic machinery of the system fights to adapt. Indeed, “Over the many centuries of their existence, universities have been continually adjusting and adapting their internal governance and core academic processes.”[1] With such fluidity of change the need for quality assurance is paramount: new doesn’t always equal better. Methods of assuring quality can become anachronistic very quickly when demands and requirements change, and “in the old days” can refer to last month.

The new Flinders EQF heralds a new way of doing things that moves away from anachronistic, summative measures of compliance – the “tick-box exercises” so often derided. To keep abreast of innovation and change, quality assurance needs to be forward looking not just compliance focused. While it is vital that we adhere to our legislative requirements under the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Act 2011 (TEQSA Act 2011), our focus should also be on developing and improving our academic offerings so that at the very least our students have a good experience.

So, what does the legislation tell us about course reviews? As a provider with the authority to self-accredit our courses, the Threshold Standards of the Higher Education Standards Framework under the TEQSA Act 2011 require that:

All accredited courses of study are subject to periodic (at least every seven years) comprehensive reviews that are overseen by peak academic governance processes and include external referencing or other benchmarking activities.

Historically, “comprehensive reviews” consisted of external panels, summonsed at great expense and fed hefty tomes of documentary evidence, conducting audit visits of campuses. Interviews were booked and tours arranged in “a climate of unease and hyperactivity”[2] as an “enhanced performance induced by audit, with its pressure to play to the gallery”[3] unfolded. Interestingly, the Threshold Standards make no mention of this panel visit as a requirement for course review. The Standards do mention what should inform a review and the criteria for internal approval and accreditation, but in terms of who conducts a review the Standards only stipulate the requirement for processes with academic governance and oversight.

In what may seem a radical departure from tradition, the EQF has dispensed with the need for expensive, time consuming and often stressful external panel visits every five years. The ownership and determination of “quality” has been returned and re-distributed locally. Flinders is, after all, a provider with self-accrediting authority, so the onus is on us to ensure that our courses of study meet, and continue to meet, applicable Threshold Standards. Not only that, but a review process informed by regular monitoring, as opposed to a stand-alone reflective audit looking back over five years of course activity, is more in keeping with a quality improvement mindset which speaks to the core values of Flinders.

‘Continuous improvement’ may seem like a managerial buzz phrase born in an era of increasing accountability and compliance. Another less cynical interpretation sees ‘continuous improvement’ as a commitment to ensuring that what we do meets the standards expected by our students, our funding agents, our industry partners, the community, and ourselves. The new Award Course Improvement and Accreditation Procedures within the EQF outline a method of Internal Course Accreditation which involves the collaborative collation and analysis of evidence drawn from continual monitoring processes to inform a submission which is then reviewed and approved by the Educational Quality Committee (EQC). The collation and analysis are collaborative in that a nominated academic lead works closely with academic colleagues and the Educational Quality Team to prepare and finalise the EQC submission: it’s very much a team effort indicative of a quality culture. The submission itself seeks to align the collated evidence to the applicable Threshold Standards, giving the review structure and legitimacy. Rather than a stand-alone, performative panel visit, the new process involves a ‘reading’ of evidence drawn from continual monitoring and interpreted into a summary upon which the EQC makes its determination. Critically, the summary includes recommended course improvements which will be followed up in the subsequent 12-month period. Courses can be reaccredited for a maximum period of seven years with the next reaccreditation submission due during the fifth year of accreditation, or discontinued.

The new approach to course review is being rolled out this year and the teams involved are blazing the trail. In the true spirit of quality improvement, the Educational Quality Team will be keeping a close eye on the process to ensure it is an innovation that ‘adds value’ and reflects our commitment to quality and continuous improvement.

[1] Dill, David. (2016). Developing a Quality Culture in Universities: Internal Quality Assurance as an Interconnected System of Tools and Processes.

[2] Strathern, M. (2000). Audit Cultures: Anthropological Studies in Accountability, Ethics and the Academy. London: Routledge.

[3] Ibid

Written by Anna Smith
Project Officer, Learning and Teaching – CILT

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