Institutionalisation of quality assurance in an Ethiopian public university
Rediet Tesfaye Abebe
Quality assurance in the Ethiopian higher education has for long been external, principally involving the evaluation of higher education institutions by a national agency (HERQA). Since 2009 however necessary legal provisions requiring every higher education institution to set up institutional quality enhancement came into effect. Based on this development, the study investigated how quality assurance has been institutionalised in a public university using an analytical framework on the institutionalisation of quality assurance developed in the field of health science.
The findings of the study showed that the Institutional Quality Enhancement (IQE) centre of the anonymous case university carries out several activities targeted at assuring and enhancing academic quality. These include carrying out internal quality audit; monitoring and supervision of quality assurance; conducting program and course audits; curriculum review; developing instruments for quality assurance; giving trainings for academic staff; ensuring fair distribution of courses; liaising with HERQA; and celebrating educational quality day. In general, the IQE directorate strove to lead and assist the continual development and improvement of academic quality and relevance in the university. On the other hand, the study analysed the state of essential elements necessary for institutionalising quality assurance in the IQE centre of the case university. Accordingly, findings indicated that there are appropriate policies and structural establishments whereas leadership, resources, and information and communication are inadequate. Even worse, the status of capacity building, core values on quality and the practice of rewarding quality has been low. Finally, the study revealed that the institutional quality enhancement of the case university vacillated between an experiential and early expansion phases of institutionalisation. Therefore, institutional support to the IQE centre should be strengthened if internal quality assurance is to further institutionalise and expand throughout the entire university. Although steps are being taken in the right direction, there is a lot to do for quality to become formally, philosophically and functionally integrated in the everyday activities of the university.
Key words: Institutionalisation, quality, quality assurance, quality enhancement, higher education, public university, Ethiopia
Ethiopia, a landlocked nation on the Horn of Africa, possesses a 1,700-year tradition of elite education linked to the Orthodox Church (Saint, 2004). However, secular higher education was initiated only in 1950 with the inauguration of the University College of Addis Ababa. Since the last decade, however, Ethiopia has aggressively expanded its higher education triggered by an educational system reform in the 1990’s with a stated goal of massification as a way to reduce poverty and develop the nation. Accordingly, the number of public universities climbed from less than 5 to 35 while a similar radical proliferation also took place in the private sector.
However, such massive expansion brought about acute concern on educational quality among other things. The enlargement of the sector put considerable strain on funding, academic staff, governance and leadership, physical resources, infrastructure and facilities, employability of graduates and other aspects (Ashcroft, 2010). The combination of these challenges has made the concern over quality of education more ardent. The perception of a declining quality thus has become a common understanding among different internal and external stakeholders.
In response to this, Ethiopia introduced the practice of quality assurance to its higher education both at national and institutional levels with the help of major proclamations. At national level, the Higher Education Proclamation (No.351/2003) made provisions for the establishment of Higher Education Relevance and Quality Agency (HERQA) which allowed the agency to exercise the mandate of safeguarding and enhancing the quality and relevance of higher education in the country (FDRE, 2003, Article 78-85). Over the last decade, the agency has been handling accreditation permits, evaluation of performance reports, supervising standards of institutions, and gathering and disseminating information on the status of quality.
The most important legal framework that laid ground for institutional quality enhancement was the 2009 Higher Education Proclamation (No.650/2009). It required the setting up of a continuously improving and reliable internal system for quality enhancement at every institution (FDRE, 2009, Article 22). This was facilitated by the understanding that many higher education institutions of the country have lagged behind in developing quality assurance strategies and establishing efficient structures that promote a culture of continuous quality improvement at institutional level. Complementary to the commendable efforts of HERQA, institutions of higher learning have already worked towards adopting structures particularly working on institutional quality enhancement since 2009. Investigating this process of institutionalisation of quality assurance systems at higher education institutions hence becomes essential to understanding how the provisions of the proclamation has been adopted and translated in to action by universities.
As far as Ethiopia is concerned, existing studies on the issue of quality have focused on examining the concept (Rayner, 2006; and Ashcroft, 2004), methods and procedures of carrying out quality evaluation (Weldemariam, 2008; and Adamu & Addamu, 2012), the organisation and practices of assuring education quality (Seyoum, 2011; Ashcroft & Rayner, 2012; Kahsay, 2012; and Regassa et al., 2013), accreditation of private higher education institutions (Bekele, 2009), stakeholder perception on quality (Lodesso, 2012), role of quality education for meeting development needs, and other related themes. However, little is researched about the institutionalisation process of internal quality assurance in public universities. In fact, none of the existing studies were dedicated exclusively to investigating the course of institutions towards assuming and discharging the responsibility of maintaining the standards of their own educational quality. The adaptation of internal quality assurance as opposed to previous dependence on external quality control by HERQA thus largely remained unaddressed. Not enough knowledge exists about the institutionalisation of quality assurance in higher education unlike in other contexts. There is also lack of information on the status of essential elements necessary for the process and the phase at which current institutional quality assurance practice have reached. This study therefore is dedicated to filling this research gap.
The study mainly seeks to investigate how quality assurance has been institutionalised in the context of an Ethiopian public university. This overarching line of inquiry is broken down into the following sub-questions:
1. What are the quality assurance activities carried out by the institutional quality enhancement (IQE) centre of the case university?
2. What is the state of essential elements necessary for institutionalising quality assurance at the case university?
3. At which phase of institutionalisation is the current institutional quality assurance practice of the case university found?
The study used an analytical framework for the institutionalisation of quality assurance adopted from the discipline of healthcare in order to carry out its main inquiry. Although borrowing a framework from health care science is rather unorthodox, the framework suitably fits the theme of this study. Most higher education researchers are accustomed to working with instruments and models from sociology, economics, management, psychology and other less-distant disciplines. As far as this study is considered, justification can be made for slightly deviating from the common trend; 1) Unlike other rudimentary frameworks, the selected framework is comprehensive and has superior relevance with regard to its capacity in monitoring and evaluating developmental progress in the institutionalisation of quality assurance. 2) The framework was developed from ample scientific evidence collected through a series of studies which strongly underscores its credibility as a valid tool of analysis. 3) Higher education research allows for inter-disciplinary and cross-disciplinary exchange of knowledge.
The analytical model for the institutionalisation of quality assurance incorporates two major elements: essential elements for institutionalisation of quality assurance and phases of institutionalisation (Askov et al., 2000; Franco et al., 2002; and Silimperi et al., 2002).
Essential elements for institutionalisation: These are the building blocks necessary in the process of developing, implementing and sustaining quality assurance activities. The elements are broadly categorised into three: internal enabling environment, organisation for quality assurance, and supporting functions. Certain elements within an internal environment of an organisation that support the initiation, expansion and development of a quality assurance practice are necessary. These include policy, leadership, resources, and core values. In the meantime, the institutionalisation of quality assurance necessitates a structure or other form of organisation to which clear roles and responsibilities are bestowed for carrying out quality care programs. With this regard, many organisations set up quality assurance departments or directorates. In any case, some sort of mechanism or structure for monitoring, decision making, implementing, supporting and coordinating quality assurance activities is decisive. Finally, an effective institutionalisation of quality assurance demands the existence of certain on-going support processes. These include capacity building, information and communication, and a mechanism of incentivising and rewarding quality.
Phases of institutionalisation: This part of the framework deals with explaining the roadmap for the process of institutionalisation. It covers the stages through which the entire process passes. Accordingly, the main phases include awareness, experiential, expansion, and consolidation. In reality, the passage through these phases occurs in between an initial state of pre-awareness of quality assurance and ends in a state of maturity. In other words, a state of pre-awareness precedes any formal awareness phase while a state of maturity comes after the consolidation phase has reached its full impact. Organisations may progress, regress or stagnate along the course. It is also possible that organisations may operate between more than one phases at the same time.
Although the analytical framework facilitates the analysis of institutionalisation of quality assurance, the team of experts who formulated the framework noted that all essential elements may not necessarily equally improve within the same phase or between phases. By the same token, all eight essential elements may not necessarily exist in the same phase; instead, each develops at different speed simultaneously determining whether the organisation advances along the institutionalisation phases. It is therefore crucial to examine the advancement of each essential element separately (Franco et al., 2002; and Silimperi et al., 2002).
The study used a qualitative research method since studying the institutionalisation of quality assurance in the context of an Ethiopian public higher education institution requires relying on the views of participants, asking broad and general questions, collecting data consisting of mainly verbal explanation from participants, describing and analysing these words for themes, and conducting the inquiry. The qualitative design provided a suitable method to generate adequate in-depth information on quality assurance practices, essential elements necessary for institutionalising quality assurance, and phases of institutionalisation.
The study investigated an anonymous public university as a case institution. Even more, the study was further confined to examining the operation of the university’s institutional quality enhancement (IQE) office. This is to maintain decent manageability of the scope it covered. In addition to this, shortage of time and other resources justify the need for studying a smaller research population. In this study, the unique aspect of choosing the case institution is maintaining anonymity or confidentiality of its identity. The central argument behind maintaining confidentiality is to ease challenges in data collection. Besides, anonymity of the university could help objectify the findings of the study without prejudice to the particular identity of the institution. Considering that it could have been conducted at any public university of the country, therefore, the results of the study could offer a broad reflection on the situation of institutionalisation of quality assurance in Ethiopian public higher education. Removing the name tag of the case university is argued to augment these advantages.
The selection of study sample employed purposive sampling technique to include respondents who were believed to have a better knowledge of and involvement with the operation of the IQE office of the case university. Therefore, the main respondents of the study include department quality assurance committee members, an academic unit head, the director and campus coordinators of the IQE office. The study collected detailed first-hand information from these respondents through in-depth interviews and focus group discussion. On the other hand, collecting secondary data involved analysing national education and training policy, higher education proclamations, strategic plans, and official documents of the office including senate legislation, institutional academic quality assurance policy, institutional plans, performance reports, official communications, meeting minutes and other documents. Moreover, the study employed non-participant observation in cross-checking information obtained through interviews and focus group discussion.
The collected data underwent a qualitative inductive analysis which was the key data analysis strategy. In reasoning from the particular to the general, the inductive analysis involved rigorously reading and interpreting the raw data to develop concepts and themes. The raw textual data was condensed into a brief summary format by developing code categories and themes followed by establishing clear links between the summary findings and the research objectives. A framework of the underlying structure of processes that are evident in the raw data was developed subsequently. The research questions and framework for the institutionalisation of quality assurance applied in the study consistently provided the required focus through the process. This was instrumental in framing relevant categories and themes based on which the coding of the raw data took place. The code categories are consistent with the contents of the framework of analysis. The steps in the coding process are also based on the illustrations by Thomas (2011): initial reading of text data; identifying specific text segments related to research objectives; labelling the segments of text to create coding categories; reducing overlap and redundancy among the categories; and creating a model incorporating most important categories (p.238).
The Ethiopian higher education has been undergoing recent developments that strive towards developing internal quality enhancement processes in addition to a prior exclusive dependence on external quality assurance. On the basis of this trend, the study investigated how quality assurance has been institutionalised in public universities. Within this broader inquiry, the study answered all three of its key research questions. A brief summary of the discussion is presented as follows:
What are the quality assurance activities carried out by the institutional quality enhancement (IQE) centre of the case university?
The findings of the study showed that the IQE centre of the case university carries out several activities primarily targeted at assuring academic quality. These include carrying out internal quality audit; monitoring and supervision of quality assurance; conducting program and course audits; curriculum review; developing instruments for quality assurance; giving trainings for academic staff; ensuring fair distribution of courses; liaising with HERQA; and celebrating educational quality day. Although currently not operational, the centre also has made preparations to begin conducting academic programs quality prize competition and follow-up on graduate employability. It developed the necessary criteria for ranking and prizing the performance of departments on their academic quality. The IQE centre also has started working on documenting the contact addresses of graduates which will be used later to assess their marketability and employability. In general, the IQE centre strove to lead and assist the continual assurance and improvement of academic quality and relevance in the university.
The quality assurance activities of the IQE centre however overemphasise on academic issues. There is policy for academic quality assurance but not for other core functions of the case university. There is very limited effort explicitly targeted at assuring the quality of research, community service and administration of the case university. This could be because the IQE centre is structurally located under the Vice Presidency for Academic Affairs, and therefore lacks the legal and structural means to conduct quality assurance and enhancement on other important organisational aspects and core university functions. Reconsidering the structural position of IQE centres could be vital in empowering internal quality care process and practice.
Besides, the IQE centre does not differentiate between quality assurance and quality enhancement. The existing link between the two aspects of quality care appears to be weak. While several quality assurance activities are being conducted by the university, the nature of its quality enhancement activities (predominantly, providing trainings of instructional and language importance) are limited and less interconnected to quality assurance efforts. Quality assurance and quality enhancement activities need to be tuned and complementary such that the outcomes of quality assurance lead the direction and content of quality enhancement.
The task of conducting institutional quality assurance has been a part-time activity, carried out by a handful of the IQE centre staffs who are overburdened by routine teaching, research, administration, and community service duties. Internal quality care has not yet become a full-time responsibility. This constrains the development of institutional quality assurance and enhancement. Mechanisms of motivating this strained staff should also be in place in order to further encourage the IQE centre.
Most of the achievements attained in the institutional quality assurance of the case university were the result of individual efforts of the IQE centre staff. From developing an academic quality assurance policy to securing material resources and office facilities fell on their shoulder in the face of dwindling institutional support. Limited leadership responsiveness partly explains this dire situation.
What is the state of essential elements necessary for institutionalising quality assurance at the case university?
The study showed the state of essential elements necessary for institutionalising quality assurance in the IQE centre of the case university. Accordingly, findings indicated that there are appropriate policies and structural establishments. In addition to existing national policy and proclamations, the IQE centre also prepared a comprehensive academic quality assurance policy for the case university. The structure of IQE centre for internal quality assurance is found at different levels; Senate, colleges, campuses, and departments. Although very weak, there is also an effort towards expanding the structure into students. On the other hand, leadership, resources, and information and communication are inadequate. The findings of the study indicated that the IQE centre received limited support from the university management. The centre also suffered from an acute shortage of human, material and financial resources. The budget given to the centre remained meagre which put pressure on non-administrative activities. The size of its staff continued to be very small and strained. Even worse, the status of capacity building, core values on quality and the practice of rewarding quality has been low. The staffs of the IQE centre lack the required expertise and training to carryout quality assurance activities. Mechanisms for enhancing overall institutional capacity towards implementing internal quality assurance are rudimentary. Respondents also reported that quality is far from being truly valued; although the desire towards assuring and improving quality exists, practical action lags behind. Recognising and rewarding good quality performance is nearly non-existent. The culture of appreciation barely became part of the institutional mind-set.
The combined state of these basic building blocks determines the overall institutional capacity to effectively carry out the challenging task of assuring and enhancing quality at the university.
At which phase of institutionalisation is the current institutional quality assurance practice of the case university found?
Finally, the study revealed that the institutional quality assurance of the case university vacillated between the experiential and early expansion phases of institutionalisation. The university duly recognised the concern on deteriorating institutional quality and made decision to implement quality assurance in order to achieve improvement. The university also set up the IQE centre to develop and implement institutional quality assurance. The centre assumed all operational responsibilities in managing and supervising internal quality. In its operation over four years now, the office strove to experiment internal quality care. Although the scope of the implementation was initially confined to delivering trainings, it gradually progressed to carrying out several internal quality assurance activities. The indications that quality assurance brought decent improvement to the academic quality of the university increased the desire to further expand the institutional quality enhancement effort. Using the experience from the experiential phase, the IQE directorate engaged in strategic expansion of the scale, scope and magnitude of its institutional quality enhancement activities. As a result, the centre expanded its organisation by setting up branch structures at different levels. The expansion was not only structural; the IQE centre also diversified its quality assurance unlike its prior engagement confined to coordinating trainings targeted at enhancing academic quality.
The findings of the study also showed that the challenges of poor leadership support, scarcity of resources, structural confusion, negative attitude and limitation in other essential elements constrained the institutional quality enhancement effort from comfortably expanding into complete expansion phase and other succeeding phases. The IQE centre is not structurally well integrated within the overall university function. Moreover, the weak institutional value on quality is also costing the university dearly in its effort towards assuring and enhancing quality.
On the other hand, the founding initiative of the IQE centre may have influenced its structural and functional integration within the university. Some documents and respondents reported that the leading initiation behind setting up the IQE centre was the result of institutional learning through studies and evaluations by the university on the status of institutional quality. Contrary to this, the timing at which the university took this step apparently corresponds to the coming into effect of proclamation No.650/2009 which made provision for higher education institutions of Ethiopia to develop institutional quality enhancement structures. It is thus logical to consider the likelihood that the establishment of the IQE centre could be more of an observance to the proclamation rather than a genuine institutional awareness and corresponding action to improve quality. This may explain why the IQE centre lacks deep penetration into the overall institutional arrangement of the case university.
Even worse, the IQE centre has no working definition of quality—the very purpose of its existence. There is a need to develop an institutional definition of quality. It is imperative to clearly describe what the concept means and its attributes. The definition could enable the development of a common understanding of the concept throughout the university and channel institution-wide endeavour towards priority areas instead of striving towards an abstract entity in the vacuum. Various academic units in the university could also be able to drive their own conceptualisation of quality within the overall institutional definition thereby enhancing a holistic approach.
The study uncovered crucial evidence in understanding how quality assurance has been institutionalised in the context of an aggressively massifying higher education system.
The study revealed that institutional capacity for institutionalising quality assurance is greatly determined by the extent of support from university senior management, availability of necessary legal frameworks, and institutional value on quality. The allocation of necessary financial, human and material resources is equally critical. Proper guidance and training from HEQA can significantly capacitate the currently incapacitated Institutional Quality Enhancement centres of public universities found in Ethiopia.
A robust system of quality assurance needs to be embedded within the structures, activities, and values as an integral part of higher education institutions. It is extremely decisive for higher education relevance and quality regulations to be consistently implemented and supported by a culture of quality. The existence of organisational values and policies that advocate quality care largely determine the development and effectiveness of endeavours targeted at effectively institutionalising quality assurance.
In conclusion, although steps are being taken in the right direction, there is a lot to do in order for quality care to become formally, philosophically and functionally incorporated into the everyday activities of the university.
Implications for policy and practice
The study generated vital information on understanding the key internal quality assurance practices, the extent to which essential elements necessary for institutionalising quality assurance are in place, and the phase at which the existing institutionalisation of quality assurance endeavour has reached. It contributed to building more knowledge on the status of quality and quality assurance in Ethiopian higher education.
Such information could have practical implication for institutional quality enhancement effort, decision making and policy advocacy. In this regard, the study uncovered where existing internal quality assurance is found, to which direction it should develop, and how it can be better supported by institutions. By doing so, the study indicated what is needed to reinforce the strengths and correct the weakness in the existing institutionalisation of quality assurance.
The result obtained from the study has a significant practical and policy implication on cautiously shaping the rapidly expanding Ethiopian higher education sector along the pathway of respectable quality. It pinpointed the status of institutionalisation of quality assurance, and indicated how improvements can be made in due course. With its emphasis on an institutional level, the study provided suggestions on the need to reinforcing institutional support to internal quality assurance efforts for the benefit of higher education quality in the country. The study can serve as an input to examining the existing practices of quality management at higher education institutions which is a key ingredient in the policy-making process. The findings and arguments presented in the study can also initiate further discussion on the topic. In general, the evidence from the study can contribute to educational quality management efforts in Ethiopian and other emerging higher education systems elsewhere.
I am sincerely thankful to respondents of the study. It is also my wish to forward my candid appreciation to fellow colleagues at the University of Tampere’s School of Management for their invaluable academic guidance throughout the process of conducting the research.
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