I must admit that I was a bit cynical, like most of my colleagues, when I heard that we were being asked to attend a workshop to be led by the university’s new Quality Assurance Coordinator, Barbara Briggs. There was a general feeling amongst the academic staff that the Quality Assurance processes and structures that had been introduced by the university in the last few years had been bureaucratic and inflexible. The objection wasn’t that things were controlled from the centre – clearly an overarching and coherent approach was essential. Rather it was that what emerged was a very formal and mechanised box-ticking exercise to which everyone had to comply. It was not a system that actually encouraged quality improvements which could be generated by drawing on the experiences of those actually involved in learning and teaching activities. Staff felt that they were not trusted and that any genuine attempts that they made to reflect on what they were doing and how things could be improved were at best ignored and at worst denigrated.
So it was a real surprise that the first thing that Barbara Briggs did at the workshop last week was not to talk at us, but to ask us what we thought should be at the heart of a proper quality assurance system in a university. Andrew Hunt from the Enterprise and Innovation Research Group led the way, arguing that what was needed was less inspection and more genuine consideration of how we could embed quality enhancement into what we did. We should listen to the teaching staff, the students and the support staff. We should simplify and streamline the procedures for updating the curriculum, responding quickly to new ideas and adapting to changing internal and external expectations. We should drive out fear of faultfinding and allow staff to be both critical and self-critical in a supportive environment. Rather than imposing uniform and time-consuming inspections we should make use of statistical sampling to provide a better balance between the costs and benefits involved in quality control. Other staff joined in the discussion but largely echoed the points that Hunt had made.
Responding, Barbara Briggs said that what Hunt had said was very much her view too. That was why she had insisted that her designation was Quality Assurance Coordinator and not Director. She said that she had set up a wiki on the university’s intranet for people to post their suggestions as to how a new system could be designed with a view to implementation in the academic year 2014-15. Some of her own ideas were already posted there but she wasn’t going to go through them now. Instead we should take our time and read them and comment on them when we found it convenient to do so.
To end the session she referred to the work of W Edwards Deming, whose ideas were adopted in Japan, especially in the automobile industry. She said that she fully recognised that there is a difference between quality issues that arise in a personalised education system as compared with those that are relevant to the production of standardised manufactured goods. However we did have to recognise that higher education had become more of a mass market commodity type of business. Under the new fee arrangements students were more likely to consider themselves as paying customers and we should put their experience at the centre of our thoughts.
Then, to round off the session, she said we might like to enjoy a few Dilbert and other cartoons about quality control and quality assurance. I have tracked down a few of them here for you to enjoy.