Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe
On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
JACOBS, Gerrie J; DE BRUIN, Karina and JACOBS, Melanie. Practices and strategies that should nurture a quality ethos in higher education institutions. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2013, vol.53, n.1, pp. 16-29. ISSN 2224-7912.
This article reflects on the last two phases of a research project, covering a period of thirteen years (1998 to 2011), conducted in four phases, and involving quality practitioners from South Africa and three other continents. The project firstly strove to identify contributors to a quality culture, and secondly to generate strategies and practices that should nurture and eventually embed an underlying quality ethos in higher education institutions. The Higher Education Quality Committee (HEQC) was assigned national oversight of quality assurance in the South African higher education sector in 2001. The HEQC encouraged institutions to promote a culture of continuous improvement via their internal quality processes, strategies and structures. However, only limited empirical (tried and tested) information was available at that stage, in respect of exactly what such a quality culture would entail and the kind ofethos that was needed to nurture and eventually embed theformer culture. This was then the main catalyst, which instigated this project. The relationship between a culture and an ethos is important, and required specific investigation. A culture was defined as the patterns of assumptions, norms, values, practices and beliefs, which the employees or members of a higher education institution regard as appropriate ways of perceiving, thinking, feeling and acting. An ethos was seen as the underlying sentiment or distinctive spirit of a culture. The project therefore explored elements or manifestations of the underlying sentiment of higher education institutions, which are perceived to enhance quality-related assumptions, norms, values, practices and beliefs; thereby nurturing (and eventually embedding) a quality ethos. Phase 1 of theproject (1998 to 2001) endeavoured to get a grip on the reigning quality culture of each of the then Rand Afrikaans University's six faculties, by collecting and analysing views from the respective faculty quality committees. The typical faculty quality culture, at the time, was labelled as "reproductive". The underlying sentiment (or ethos) of this kind of culture is usually aimed at maintaining the status quo. The second project phase (2002 to 2004) focused on possible changes in faculty quality cultures and in underlying quality ethos since 1998. This led the researchers to conclude that, after a period offive to six years, the quality cultures of all faculties had changed considerably. Quality committees now perceived quality as a much more important indicator of faculty effectiveness. However, the underlying faculty quality ethos was still (as in the late 1990s) perceived to be more re-active than pro-active - mostly shaped by demands or requests from external "forces" ("someone or something out there"). Fairly deep-seated concerns from academics, that an overtly enthusiastic quality assurance focus by faculties might undermine scholarship and autonomy, gave rise to and maintained the re-active kind of ethos. The project's focus became broader in phases 3 and 4 - the emphasis being on contributors to an institutional (which might be different from a faculty) quality culture and its underlying ethos. The researchers were now faced with a totally reformed South African higher education landscape - the number of institutions had been reduced from 36 to 23, with six "new" comprehensive universities, sharing the landscape with eleven "traditional" universities and six universities of technology. The methodology employed during phases 3 and 4, was the action research and organisational change approach, known as appreciative inquiry, applied in its usual interactive workshop mode. The intention was to uncover strategies and practices "that seem to work", by eliciting positive responses from participants to the appreciative inquiry-question: "What gives life to an institutional quality culture when it functions at its best?" Phase 3 kicked-off with in-house workshops at the University of Johannesburg, during the second semester of2007 and the first semester of2008. The project then gained "national status", when the Higher Education Quality Committee invited the researchers to facilitate a similar workshop (for quality practitioners and directors of national higher education institutions), in the second semester of 2008. This workshop generated constructive responses in respect of perceived contributors to an institutional quality culture; as well as practices, which might either sustain or impede an underlying quality ethos. The researchers hence had the privilege to soundboard, attest and verify their workshop findings (although based on a very selective group of participants) in the international domain, as phase 4 of theproject. Five similar workshops were conducted, on invitation, at international higher education conferences (generally institutional research, planning- and quality-related events) between 2008 and 2011. Seven main contributors to an institutional quality culture, and incidentally also seven practices and/or strategies, which should nurture and embed an underlying quality ethos, represent the project's main findings. From 2002 to 2009, the European University Association (EUA) launched a similar project, supporting European universities in embedding their own institutional quality cultures. An institutional quality culture in higher education, the EUA project found, usually consists of two interdependent components, namely: (1) shared values, beliefs, expectations and commitment towards quality and (2) a pro-active and focused institutional approach to quality assurance and enhancement in all areas. The South African project, most remarkably, found that the nature of the interface between these two components - the extent of alignment and synergy between the institutional quality approach and shared (especially academic) staff values, beliefs and expectations - lies at the heart ofthe establishment and perpetuation of an institutional quality ethos. A thorough understanding of the necessary condition(s) for optimal interplay between these two components, as well as contributing or limiting factors, are considered as much-needed and desirable future research.
Keywords : quality; quality ethos; quality culture; higher education; Higher Education Quality Committee; quality enhancement; quality assurance; faculty quality; institutional quality; appreciative inquiry methodology; quality in higher education; Rand Afrikaans University; University of Johannesburg.