Value judgments

4th November 1994 at 00:00
Assessing Quality in Further and Higher Education, By Allan Ashworth and Roger Harvey, Jessica Kingsley #163;22.50. 1 85302 539 9

Quality is a major issue in further and higher education. Service agreement criteria are specified in student charters and funding agencies demand evidence that effective quality assurance procedures are in place throughout the organisation. Although most colleges have developed systems to assess the standard of course provision, they are insufficient on their own.

The strength of Ashworth and Harvey's book is that it takes a holistic approach. The authors link quality to corporate strategy and recognise the potential for enhancing students' experience by ensuring quality underpins all aspects of college work. As the title suggests, this is more of a "how are we doing?" than a "how to do it" book, although the assessment criteria provide plenty of hints.

Ashworth and Harvey begin with an array of indicators used to assess achievement in relation to national averages. A college now faces more performance tests than the prototype of a grand prix racing car and bench marking is a way of measuring itself against the highest (and lowest) achievers in the sector.

In addition to examination results, college managers must wrestle with some 30 indicators that include unit costs, space utilisation percentages and added value. As the authors point out, these quantitative measures are not an "end in themselves . . . but . . . provide a catalyst for further investigation. "

Subsequent chapters help practitioners find out what is going on with a framework for assessing quality on a five point scale: very good, good, satisfactory, unsatisfactory and poor. The quality grade descriptions may seem simplistic, but the checklists provided for conducting internal quality audits to aid classification are thorough, identifying several characteristics that correspond to each grade. The checklists also cover a wide range of college activities and facilities under the headings of organisation and resources, students, teaching and learning, curriculum, standards and assessment.

Most of the criteria specified in the checklists are verifiable and management information systems should be capable of compiling "hard" performance indicators such as the staffstudent ratio. There is far less use of "soft" quality indicators such as leadership, commitment, morale and relationships. They are equally valid but more difficult to assess reliably. Judgments may be determined by employees' perception surveys or changes in staff turnover rates and absence levels, but are more likely to be based on hunches. This does not mean that hard-to- measure factors should be excluded. Assessment is an interactive process and it is possible to promote "soft" qualities precisely because senior managers are evaluating them. Essentially, that is the purpose of assessing quality: to bring about improvements wherever there are shortcomings.

The central challenge for colleges is to achieve greater efficiency while maintaining the quality of service provided for students and other stake holders. Assessing Quality in Further and Higher Education is a useful handbook aimed at helping practitioners discover those areas in their organisations where corrective action is needed to improve standards.This book has none of the hype and fervour associated with tomes on quality. It is written and presented in a down-to-earth style making liberal use of bullet points that will appeal to managers working under pressure. If quality is about meeting customer requirements, Ashworth and Harvey have created a quality product.

John Harris is director of human resources at Stanmore College, Middlesex.

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