by Hasini Lecamwasam
As Sri Lanka descends further into the abyss of economic misery, pressure is mounting on public universities to focus more on quality assurance (QA), allegedly to justify the strain they are putting on the public purse. Quality assurance purports to improve the quality of education provided by public universities by ensuring that certain general standards are met and maintained, and extensive documentation is seen as evidence of this. Accordingly, universities seek to gather evidence of “excellence”; get a good grade and ranking; show that they are doing a good enough job for it; individual departments struggle to meet ever-growing mountains of documentation requirements for this purpose; tighter deadlines; and increasingly exhausting demands from the political hand, top administration and society itself to “do more”.
However, in the current context of social, political and economic collapse, we cannot simply “boil down” the reality around us and continue our work at the university as if it does not affect what we teach-learn and how. we will do it. The purpose of this brief intervention is to summarize the objectives and tools of quality assurance and whether it can deliver on its promises, especially in the context of a crisis situation.
Faulty premises and false promises
Achieving the prescribed quality assurance standards is expected to satisfactorily align education with the needs of the labor market (in particular by providing students with the skills and competences that the market is looking for, so that they are employable after graduation, making them employable). Educational programs are expected to transform their content and methods for this purpose. However, we seem to be continuing to respond to market “signals” that are falling apart in every way. This market, in turn, is dictated by the larger global economy, which itself is showing all the signs of recession in the context of the post-pandemic shock. If—or rather, when—foreign markets isolate themselves to mitigate the effects of an incipient recession, we are headed for a much bigger crisis, given our total dependence on foreign markets, as history has repeatedly shown. The conversation must therefore focus on economic reform as a matter of urgency, without which quality assurance in education will simply create a suffocating employment bottleneck and/or further exacerbate the debilitating brain drain currently occurring.
Quality Control has also used progressive terminology such as “expanding access to education” to justify privatization. Privatization, seen as another means of preventing capital flight, cannot be expected to bring much return, as most of the profits flow back to the global center: in education, most of the parent universities are located abroad from private local degree institutions, which absorb most of the profits; Even health care, another important area of privatization, is siphoning a significant portion of profits overseas, mostly from pharmaceutical and medical device companies based in the global north. Not to mention the capital flight caused by locals who appropriate the remaining profits and invest them abroad in tax havens.
Nor can we ignore how the quality assurance process is fraught with epistemological and political flaws. First, conceptual issues are reduced to a mere matter of nomenclature. For example, when I challenged the commoditization of education in a QA meeting, I was told “if you can’t call it to commoditize education, we can call it something else,” as if the problem was the label. rather the policy that is advocated!
For another, generic rubrics developed to evaluate very different programs are problematic, to say the least. I do not wish to repeat the concerns raised in this column and elsewhere in this regard. Suffice it to say that developing a general rubric scheme for all programs so that reviewers who “don’t have the time to look at all the details” (and indeed the necessary understanding of the subject) can assign grades. and ranking serves no purpose if the aim is to ensure any meaningful level of “quality”.
Furthermore, these headings are not adapted to the context of the current recession. It goes without saying that evaluating an institution or program using rubrics originally developed and deployed in a “normal” context cannot effectively capture the dynamics of the exceptional situation and its impact on what is taught, how it is taught, and how. received and therefore how to evaluate it. In assessing and ranking the ‘progress’ of the programme, it is unjustifiable to ignore the situational constraints caused by first the raging pandemic and then the massive economic crisis, both of which were already very unevenly distributed. landscape, seriously influencing what could – or rather could not – be done.
Where is quality assurance?
Our preoccupation with quality assurance reflects the great struggle to survive as an institution in the face of increasing pressure to remain “relevant” in a context of rapid commercialization. But therein lies our greatest failure as institutions of higher education: our failure to raise questions about the larger economic and historical context that shapes this narrative, the reproduction of colonial hierarchies that privilege global centers of knowledge production, the knowledge they produce, and the regional institutions that can best showing that they have embraced the first logic has a significant impact on the meaningfulness of our actions, both politically and economically.
I am aware that the decaying case of morale within the university continues to warrant quality control intervention. This is mainly due to the pervasive hierarchy and lack of accountability it fosters. But QA uses this hierarchy simply to “get things done” and it allows for mountaintop documentary evidence of “work done” without any meaningful evaluation of such mediocrity. The work itself may end up going undone, given the additional demands QA places on the time and effort of staff who are already struggling to perform their duties effectively under the strain of an increasingly underfunded system.
Therefore, the quality we strive to ensure is not serving its purpose, especially in the current context. Derailment requires the work of both parties, that is, the quality control process and the programs being evaluated: the first through the development of program, stream, and context-differentiated evaluation methods that place greater emphasis on the substantive aspects of programs. Ideally, they would also place the necessary emphasis on the cultural and situational context of the programs. As for the programs, there is a great need to invest more time and effort into this education. Both, in turn, call for greater allocation of resources from the government, which is a rather optimistic expectation at a bleak moment where privatization seems to lie in the hands of free education entirely with full state sanction.
Hasini Lecamwasam is affiliated with the Department of Political Science, University of Peradeniya.
Kuppi is the politics and pedagogy that takes place on the edge of the lecture hall, which parodies, undermines and at the same time reaffirms social hierarchies.