Quality in higher education

George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is an iconic book of the twentieth century. Among the features of the totalitarian society he described is the language, Newspeak, in which the meanings of words have been re-defined by the Party.

For some time I have been troubled by a tendency in the bureaucracy of higher education for Newspeak to be introduced. For example, back in the good old days when the research council responsible for mathematics had a Mathematics Committee, I sat on this committee for a few years. Almost the last thing the committee did was to consider a directive from on high according to which, in order to qualify for research council funding, a Masters programme must have the property that a certain proportion (I think 2/3) of its “product” should take jobs in industry or civil service within a year of graduation. This represents one bureaucratic view of students; the other is as “customers”. Both, I think, cost us something.

But I want to rant here about the Newspeak meaning of another word: “quality”.

The United Kingdom has a body called the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA in brief) whose mission statement is

QAA checks how universities maintain their own academic standards and quality. We review and report on how they meet their responsibilities, identify good practice and make recommendation for improvement. We publish guidelines to help institutions develop effective systems to ensure students have the best learning experience.

You might reasonably assume that such an organisation would provide a definition of quality (at least in higher education, if not in the world at large). However, you will look in vain at their website for any such definition.

It turns out that this is one of the things you are just supposed to know. Colin Riordan (vice-chancellor, University of Essex), writing in Times Higher Education, 7 May 2009, offers the following:

Quality assurance experts have no difficulty with the … terms [“quality” and “standards”]. Quality refers to the policies and practices used by higher education institutions to ensure that teaching and learning are properly managed.

This tells you exactly what to expect from a QAA inspection. They are not interested in how you teach, how you engage students in lectures or tutorials, whether you communicate to them the excitement of the subject. Instead, they look at your paperwork, your committee structures: Is there a proper mechanism for the syllabus of a new course to be approved (probably by a faculty board where everyone knows less about the subject-matter of the course than the person who designed it)? Is there an avenue for a disgruntled student to make a complaint? Do rules and regulations for setting learning objectives, for processing exam marks, and so on, exist?

Pause to note another subtlety of this quote. There are “experts” in quality assurance, as in any other subject. They have no advice to offer about good teaching. But they know all there is to know about committee structure of “quality” academic faculties.

I recommend that it should be made compulsory for any bureaucrat thinking of using the word “quality” to read Robert M. Pirsig’s novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The book is sub-titled “An investigation of quality”, and is the only book I know that can produce nail-biting tension in a description of a philosophy tutorial, investigating the views of Socrates and Plato on “the good” and “the true”.

The heart of the book is the episode where the protagonist realises that “quality” (which he is committed to teaching in his composition classes, or “rhetoric” as the Greeks at the time of Socrates would have it) is identical with another idea he had encountered in Taoist philosophy, that of Tao, which comes before Heaven and Earth. In a beautiful passage, worth quoting in full, he reads the passage, substituting “Quality” for “Tao”:

The quality that can be defined is not the Absolute Quality.
The names that can be given it are not Absolute names.
It is the origin of heaven and earth.
When named it is the mother of all things . . .
Quality and its manifestations are in their nature the same. It is given different names when it becomes classically manifest.
Romantic quality ad classic quality together may be called the “mystic”.
Reaching from mystery into deeper mystery, it is the gate to the secret of all life.
Quality is all-pervading.
And its use is inexhaustible!
Fathomless!
Like the foutainhead of all things . . .
Yet crystal clear like water it seems to remain.
I do not know whose Son it is.
An image of what existed before God.

And more in the same spirit. How, after reading this, could anyone mistakenly think that quality can be measured by looking in filing cabinets?

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About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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