Contribution to the discussion on the quality of study


Professor Ji Witzany
Czech Technical University in Prague
AECEF President


Among priority issues to be tackled by a number of universities in the nearest future there is evaluation of the quality of study.

Special attention must be paid to the problem of preserving the quality of study, namely due to its greater orientation on practically applicable knowledge, partly to the detriment of theoretic courses, on the first Bachelor's level. Increased pressure on more professionally oriented study on the first level must not be accompanied by undesirable approaches and methods of instruction.

The main focus must be on understanding causal relations, on perceiving the "depth" of problems, on educating towards critical thinking. The quality of study should be understood namely as the quality of the educational process itself; i.e. communication of knowledge, its explanation and verification and should not be measured in a quantitative way only. Through their study, university graduates must acquire the capability of not only applying, but also permanently developing their knowledge. On the first, Bachelor's degree level, students must be given a sound theoretic background to able to make further contributions to it within the second, Master's degree programme. Deep knowledge of the essence of studied problems and searching for solutions must be preferred to premature and excessive specialization.

A number of branches and study specializations often represent a mere sum of individual theoretic and professional disciplines, without direct links and conditionality. Responsibility for instruction and its effectiveness and standards, as well, is often limited to individual disciplines and courses, while the overall responsibility for the branch of study is insufficient. Students' guidance, information and feedback are not always of adequate quality.

Under new conditions, university institutions may win recognition only by the quality of the teaching process. The offer of university education within Europe, with regard to globalisation tendencies in tertiary education, is getting increasingly wider. The scope of possibilities for the selection of a college to study at open to the present-day applicants for university study is incomparably wider than in the recent past.

Quality assurance in university study is not a one-step solution, but a continuous process stimulating a wide dialogue within universities, as well as outside them, on education and potential measures aimed at assuring its quality. The question is not only to promote competitiveness, but also to be accountable for the use of public and other resources provided to universities for their activity. The aim is to maintain and deepen the good position of European university institutions within the presently created European educational space as a precondition for attracting sufficient numbers of high-quality domestic and international students, within a system facilitating student mobility.

Among the most common forms and means of university education evaluation there is internal evaluation, such as evaluation of study and teachers by students, evaluation reports made by university boards set up for this purpose, final reports on university activity, evaluations by external experts (peer review) and evaluations carried out by independent external evaluation agencies (national and international). It is evident that each of the above-mentioned evaluation methods has its pros and cons. It is therefore advisable to include each of these methods in the evaluation process, as each of them is indispensable in a certain area of evaluation.

Harmony between the presumed course, content and objectives of study and the real, actual course and achieved results may be verified namely by students' evaluations. The results of these evaluations have, as a rule, immediate effect.

The relevance and usefulness of the content and extent of students' preparation in the respective specialization and branch may be evaluated namely by external experts and institutions. The objectivity of their opinion, however, requires not only good knowledge of practice and its needs, but also the knowledge of university life, educational problems and a capability of wider, timeless understanding of the effect of university education. Evaluation by external experts represents, in particular, a significant source of information (feedback) for setting a medium-term conception of university development and orientation of study branches.

Evaluations carried out by independent, e.g. national evaluation agencies, if they are based on objective and generally acceptable criteria, may provide significant information for comparing the actual state of quality assurance in education and the effectiveness of educational systems of individual universities, contributing, at the same time, to the creation of a competitive environment among universities.

Granting accreditations for a limited time, based on objective evaluation methods, is a significant accent supporting the quality of the respective university and its continuous evaluation.

A common starting point and, at the same time, a precondition for objective evaluation of the quality of education, however, must be based on a consensus on the question, "What is the quality of study?" and what objective criteria to use for its evaluation and verification. The quality of study may be defined as a sum of partial qualitative signs describing the quality of university environment and the quality of educational process.

The quality of university environment includes, above all, the quality of internal university environment, i.e. the quality and level of services, library and study-room facilities, the quality of lecture halls, classrooms and laboratories, the information systems level, the quality and accessibility of computer technology and mechanical equipment, the quality and availability of sporting facilities and clubrooms. A certain role in this area of evaluation may also be played by the quality of external environment, its social and cultural level.

The quality of teaching process includes namely the quality of information on the conditions, content, objectives of study , including the possibilities of implementation of individual ideas on education, information on the objectives and content of individual disciplines, information on the method of quality assessment in educational process, and, last but not least, the quality of the educational process itself, the level of lectures, seminars, practical classes, laboratory practice, the quality of used means and aids, the quality of teacher-student contacts and also the level, quality and involvement of students in research and development activity. An inseparable part of the quality of teaching process is also adequate student awareness of the methods of verification and evaluation of knowledge and skills.

Without clearing up this fundamental question "What is the quality of study, what are the criteria for its evaluation?", the very best evaluation may miss the mark. Such failure may be prevented if there exists a professional institution dealing with the problems of quality assessment in university study at the level of each university, or within university associations, accreditation committees and the respective ministries. Financial resources spent on supporting this activity will, without doubt, return in the form of high effectiveness of educational university programmes and high-quality graduates. The concept quality management or quality assurance includes not only quality assessment, but all activity aimed at maintaining and developing quality. The main precondition for achieving a continuous process of quality improvement is the creation of a dynamic model of a university (institute of higher educational) capable of flexible reaction to the requirements of external environment, without unnecessary administrative obstacles.

Quality assessment may be performed at national and international levels. External quality assessment of universities in the Czech Republic includes compulsory accreditation granted by the Accreditation Committee. Another form of external quality assessment may consist in non-compulsory assessment (accreditation), requested by the university from some institution like the OECD, CRE, ABET assessment, or ISO 9001 assessment. Internal quality evaluation is a basic means of permanent improvement of university activity in all areas, helping to reveal the weak points of its environment and educational process, and strengthening, at the same time, its strong points. From this point of view, internal quality evaluation may be classified as more important that external assessment. A basic precondition for internal quality evaluation is its systematic and formalized basis, definition of the objectives and profile of the respective university and general involvement of academic members in the process of quality evaluation. Among significant measures there is development of a quality management model, which will set the basic activities, criteria, forms of evaluation and responsibilities at individual college levels. Within the framework of creation of European educational space, it is necessary, without unnecessary delays, to start dealing with the issues of creating a universally acceptable system of external and internal evaluation of study quality. The first step is, without any doubt, reaching consensus on this issue at the European Rectors' Conference level. It will be followed by the development of an acceptable study quality assessment model to fit the conditions of individual national universities and institutes of higher education.

To conclude, it is necessary to point out that the results of quality assessment in education must serve namely as a significant source of information for decision-making activity and adopting measures on the part of university and faculty managements, not as a pretext for immediate restrictive measures on the part of university founders. The demanding and complex character of the process of evaluation of educational systems and achieved quality of the graduates of higher educational institutes requires a practice when the respective decision-making power is fully within the authority of university managements, which are also held responsible for quality in education.

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