Chapter 17: Quality Assurance

17.1 In recent years, and in particular following the major expansion in student intake which occurred during 1991-95, concern has been expressed in the community and in the HEIs about quality - quality of matriculants, quality of teaching, quality of learning and quality of graduates. In parallel with similar developments in many other parts of the world, there is both public and professional interest in systems to assess, recognize, promote and reward the achievement of quality. One common feature of higher education systems elsewhere is that quality is recognized as the responsibility of the individual institutions, and that they are expected to be publicly accountable for it.

17.2 In 1993 ExCo confirmed that the responsibility for monitoring quality assurance at the UGC-funded institutions should rest with the UGC, a view which was supported by the institutions. In the succeeding paragraphs we describe the quality assurance measures which have been developed by the UGC in partnership with its own institutions. Those introduced by other bodies are covered in paragraphs 17.10 and 17.11. While the HKCAA does not have a large formal role as far as the UGC sector is concerned, the expertise of its members, as individuals, is sought in the implementation of our quality assurance, not least to ensure that the UGC and non-UGC sectors are coordinated.

17.3 The concept of quality can be approached from a number of directions, and it is necessary to distinguish between these in order to understand the system of quality assurance which is now being set up by the UGC. One possibility is to study and measure the quality of the output (i.e. the graduates). This concept is familiar from the primary and secondary sectors, where exit quality is measured by common examinations. Output can be a useful indicator of a school's effectiveness if pupil intakes and resources are comparable and the curriculum is uniform. But in the higher education sector, the quality of the intake differs considerably across institutions and programmes and, more importantly, the curricula and even their objectives are rightly diverse. Thus, the output quality of graduates, even if it could be measured in some supposedly common form, is subject to much difficulty and controversy in interpretation.

17.4 A modification, favoured by economists, is to consider the value added, i.e. the quality of the output minus that of the intake. While conceptually perhaps more valid, it is at the same time even more difficult to measure, except possibly within a narrow discipline. Yet another way of attempting to measure quality is to look at the inputs. Broad indicators might be intake quality and the resources available; more detailed indicators could include contact hours of instruction, class sizes, library and IT facilities, staff-to-student ratios and the qualifications of staff. While data such as these are routinely collected by the UGC, there is again grave risk in relating such numerical "scores" to quality and performance - for example, more contact hours might mean that students were over-taught, and small class sizes might signal inefficient deployment of staff. Moreover, the adoption of input measures as quality surrogates could defeat efforts to improve educational productivity.

17.5 Measurements of output, value added or inputs can form the elements of a quality assessment exercise. Where such exercises have been undertaken in the higher education sector to determine the quality of an institution or part of one, experience in many parts of the world has shown that there are substantial difficulties and at least two undesirable side effects. First, the overall result is likely to be a simple score or ranking, which may reduce the richness of the educational experience to trivial one-dimensionality. Second, since an assessment has to be objective and reasonably open, it tends to rely heavily on numerical performance indicators; there is a danger that these indicators may become ends in themselves, thereby distorting the whole educational enterprise. Moreover, unless the assessment exercise has been designed and handled with great sensitivity, there is the likelihood that some participants will feel misinterpreted and ill-used : the risks of this are probably at their greatest in a relatively small academic community such as that in Hong Kong.

17.6 After much discussion between the UGC and its institutions, it has been agreed that, at least for the time being, quality assessment shall be eschewed in the consideration of teaching and learning (although it may be introduced for research (see paragraph 37.5)). Instead the Grants Committee will study process.

17.7 The use of Process Review as the main instrument of quality assurance is based on the assumption that the quality of graduate output depends principally on three factors: the quality of the student intake, the resources available, and the processes in place. The last is intentionally meant to be all-embracing; at one extreme it may include formal systems such as external examiners, while at the other it may try to take account of such elusive factors as the academic ambiance of an institution. The focus on process is appropriate because, of the three factors that determine the quality of the output, the available quality of the student intake is the responsibility of the school system and the overall level of resourcing is the responsibility of government, but the processes of teaching and learning are determined entirely by the higher education institutions themselves.

17.8 Process Reviews are naturally linked to an agenda for improvement, which must be the ultimate objective of any enquiry into quality. However, it is important to remember that the HEIs in Hong Kong have differing roles, missions and characteristics, and offer programmes in a wide variety of disciplines and in many styles; this diversity is a strength of the system that the UGC believes should be preserved and enhanced. It follows that the quality assurance processes that may be appropriate for one institution will almost certainly not be appropriate in their entirety for another. Any UGC quality assurance exercise must therefore avoid specifying a template or an ideal model against which to measure process, but must instead review the processes as they exist in each individual institution. These processes must, however, be comprehensive. They must control the quality of self-funding courses and those offered with overseas partners (see paragraph 2.10) as well as those fully funded by the UGC.

17.9 The UGC has always played a major role in the monitoring of quality assurance in its institutions. It has used a variety of mechanisms, including institutional and academic reviews, sectoral reviews, formal and informal visits and discussions at various levels. Additionally, the Committee has supported the institutions' own efforts in reviewing, maintaining, developing and enhancing the quality of their education provision. The Grants Committee has recently started a series of Teaching and Learning Quality Process Reviews. They are described in detail in Annex E. So far HKU, CUHK, HKUST, HKBU and LC have been reviewed. Review visits to CityU and PolyU are planned for January 1997. The reviews so far have gone well and the experience gained and examples of best practices are being shared among the institutions. The whole approach will be reconsidered by the Grants Committee after the first cycle of visits has been completed.

17.10 As well as the quality studies carried out by the UGC, the Vocational Training Council is putting in place formal quality assessment procedures for the courses at its two technical colleges, whose first cohort of students graduated in July 1996. Each course has a Course Leader and Course Team who together constitute a Board of Studies, one of whose jobs is to produce an Annual Course Quality Analysis Return. This has to be set in the context of an agreed departmental policy on quality and is based upon examination results, external examiners' comments, students' views on both the course itself and supporting services, and other factors. All returns are considered by the colleges' Academic Planning and Audit Committee which will intervene in the case of any course where it is dissatisfied with the quality attained. In addition to this quality reportage mechanism, the VTC is introducing peer review of lecturing performance, in which colleagues will attend lectures and offer informal comment subsequently. Each teacher will be visited once per term. This peer review is intended to be supportive but not discriminatory, and no records will be kept.

17.11 The Hong Kong Council for Academic Accreditation was established in 1990 as an independent statutory body to provide advice on academic qualifications and standards. Its initial work was much concerned with the validation of degree programmes, but this has diminished as institutions have become self-accrediting. (The Council is, however, still involved in accrediting programmes at the APA, OLI and the HKIEd). The most rapidly growing area of the HKCAA's work is in advising government and others on the standards of qualifications acquired outside Hong Kong. The Council is helped in this by its membership of the International Network for Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education, which the HKCAA took a major part in founding in 1991 and administered for the first four years of its existence. The Council maintains a register of over one thousand subject specialists around the world whose advice can be sought on matters of validation and quality.

17.12 Although the mechanisms described in the previous paragraphs are important, the greatest aid to good teaching lies in recognition by senior colleagues and reward for endeavour. As a spur to better teaching, the UGC is offering HK$150m in Teaching Development Grants during the 1995-98 triennium. A recent study of Australian Universities (Ramsden et al, 1995) concludes that :

There is a need to establish stronger confidence among academic staff in their institutions' commitment to supporting and rewarding good teaching. The results of the staff survey confirmed that many academics do not believe their institutions genuinely value good teaching and recognise the contributions of good teachers. There is widespread suspicion of universities' claims that they already do so through their existing policies and procedures. Staff believe that corporate action and demonstrated support are more important than rhetoric about rewarding university teaching.

Appropriate rewards have a central place in recognising good teaching. Promotion and confirmation of appointment are the most important aspects of reward. There is no substitute for action in this area if universities want their staff to accept that good teaching is properly recognised.

Rewards are not enough. Survey and case study evidence strongly endorsed the view that the right institutional conditions - meaning above all an environment that encourages staff to exchange ideas about teaching, and provides concrete support for their efforts to improve - are essential. Effective management and leadership at all levels are absolutely critical to good teaching and its proper recognition. Promoting good teaching is a goal which is as important as promoting good teachers."



We strongly endorse these views.

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