Why did those who created this agency include the word quality in its name, even though it resulted in one of the clumsiest acronyms — HEQCO — on the face of the earth?
I think it’s because they were smart and prescient. They understood that there are a million questions one could ask and research about a higher education system. But they also knew that the most important questions were inevitably about the quality of the education offered by the system and the quality of the learning experience for students. All the research we continue to do goes back to the primacy and foundation of the quality issue.
Followers of HEQCO know that we pursue three primary areas of research — equity of access, learning outcomes and system design. All three revolve around the issue of quality.
Our continuing work on equity of access emphasizes that this challenge is more than simply getting students in and out of the postsecondary door. It also leads us to ask the question, “Access to what?” And this means asking whether, once we get them in the door, does the education we offer students who are currently underrepresented in the system give them what they need to put them on equal footing with those who are well-represented and ensure they have the same chance at success?
Our long-standing commitment to learning outcomes and skills measurement is another quintessential quality issue. As I have argued previously, quality in higher education is answering the question of whether students and the public get from postsecondary studies what these programs advertise: Do students get the skills they thought they would get from participating in them and does the public get the benefits it was promised by investing in them?
Our deep analysis of the sustainability of the Ontario postsecondary system under the rubric of system design has repeatedly emphasized that sustainability is not primarily a financial matter, of whether revenues and expenses are in balance. Rather, it is fundamentally and critically about academic quality, whether institutions can or are providing quality programs with the resources available to them.
If I were a physicist, I would call the quality issue the unifying principle.
But how do we measure quality in the postsecondary world? We aren’t alone in struggling with this issue. This is why, as I wrote in a previous blog post, we invited experts from around the world for a two-day workshop in Toronto in May 2017 to discuss their approaches to measuring quality. I promised at that time that I would make public the results of these conversations and analyses. That day has arrived.
My colleagues and I recently published a book, Assessing Quality in Postsecondary Education: International Perspectives. You can get a copy here. Readers will learn about the approaches that various jurisdictions have taken to measuring quality, everything from measuring it indirectly by monitoring inputs and processes used to teach, to the use of surrogate markers such as graduation rates, to direct measurements of skills through the use of standardized tests. Readers will also see a provocative analysis calling for a reframing of the conversation from one of “quality” to one of “value.”
Finally, readers can see what we at HEQCO have learned from these various approaches and the way we are headed: toward direct, value-added measures of specific skills using psychometrically rigorous test instruments. This is what’s driving several of our ongoing and most ambitious projects.
If, like us, you are interested in the problem of measuring academic quality, you cannot help but be impressed, as we were, by the thoughtful, disciplined and varied approaches researchers from around the world are taking to this issue.
Enjoy. And thanks for reading.