This paper explores evidence in the literature for the assertion that there are differing professional identity groups extant within higher education. The thesis here is that the existence of these groups gives rise to different perceptions and tensions within quality assurance in higher education. The paper sets out the previous research in relation to management, academic, administration and student services perceptions in higher education, how these relate to QA and the tensions that arise. The chapter ends with some initial reflections on policy and practice in QA in higher education as they relate to the management-academic nexus with its characteristic perceptions and tensions. The paper considers the importance of organisation culture as a conceptual framework giving meaning to the identity nexus impact on quality and quality assurance in higher education.
The interplay of management control, autonomous academic culture and behaviour, institutional administrative accountability and student services staff commitment to the student experience presents an increasingly complex organisational environment specific to higher education. The implementation of QA in this complex environment needs to be informed by research based understanding. Michael Lipsky’s work on ‘street level bureaucracy’ provides a phenomenological insight that raised questions regarding the effectiveness of national and organisation QA policy and implementation in higher education (Lipsky, 1980). Lipsky focused on the mediation of policy by frontline workers who interact directly with clients, students in this context. The levels of autonomy and discretion among staff in many higher education contexts supports the assertion that Lipsky’s research is relevant if not compelling in the study of quality assurance in higher education. The problem for accountability in light of Lipsky’s analysis was examined by Hudson (1989). Hudson details four main types of accountability to law, the consumer, the organisation and professional norms. He concluded that “if we wish to understand policy implementation, we must understand the street level bureaucrat”. By investigating the perceptions, tensions and possibilities extant at ‘street level’ or on the front line of operation in higher education, this paper sets out the basis of research that aims to formulate a collaborative, integrated approach to quality insurance. The research focuses on Higher Education QA observed through the lens of four higher education cultures: management; academic; administration and student services, with the student lens used to crosscheck different staff group views against those of students. Collaboration and integration around QA has significant value in terms of ownership, exploiting the street level bureaucracy for the good of the organisation and leveraging staff involvement and commitment. In his study of internal governance and management Middlehurst reminds us that higher education organisations are places where ideas and values are deeply integrated with structures, functions, roles and cultures. In his view, “change processes must address the socio-emotional and symbolic aspects of institutional life as well as the instrumental aspects of the business” (Middlehurst, 2004). By investigating underlying group cultures within higher education this research aims to establish a better understanding of how quality assurance is viewed by different cultural constituencies so that the aspects of higher education institutional life identified by Middlehurst are taken into account in QA.
Perceptions and tensions are at the heart of staff group identity or culture in higher education. Overlaps and conflict in roles within higher education make the traditional labelling of staff as management, administration or academic increasingly problematic (Lambert Report, 2003). Variations in definitions or identity of staff groupings in the literature reflect this growing complexity (Whitechurch, 2004; Hassan, 2003). Shattock (2003) argues for the importance of “management in its broadest sense”. Given these differences in staff cultures and identities, staff respondents self-identify within the four identity groupings.
The research study used staff surveys and interviews to determine the views of different staff identity groups and to investigate the perceptions and tensions that arise between these groups. As a mixed methods study both qualitative and quantitative data was analysed to determine both the nature and extent of different views on a wide range of academic quality concerns. The Delphi Method or Delphi Process was used to explore the perceptions and tensions identified. This method also supported the research to challenge perceptions and tensions to determine the basis disagreement and where a consensus could be reached. The research was structured across four phases: Phase 1: (Baseline Data Survey) Online survey of all 500 staff across the four staff groups (academic, administration, management, student support services) consisting of a structured questionnaire to evaluation perceptions, tensions and possibilities of the QA systems in operation in the Institute. Phase 2: (Socially Constructed Meaning): Online follow-up survey of the same 500 staff across the four staff groups and the student group, consisting of a structured questionnaire sharing the different group views resulting from the Delphi Round 1 survey questionnaire and seeking participants to confirm or clarify their views in light of their new knowledge of other groups’ views. This follow-up survey looked at the level of agreement when survey participants were made aware of other participants choices, at how people were influences in their choices be knowing their role group’s views and at the changes in ranking of choices. Phase 3: Following critical review of the results of the two questionnaire surveys from Phase 1 and Phase 2, a collaborative profile was compiled, representing an integrated view of all four staff groups, based on levels of consensus identified in Phase 1 and constructed in Phase 2. At this point the data was checked with student views to determine the level of consistency with the views of the staff groupings on quality assurance. Phase 4: Delphi Round 3 (Expert Verification): Individual structured interviews with QA experts and key decision makers to verify that the QA outputs of the collaborative, integration process are robust in terms of QA and organisation management. These interviews take the form of in-depth semi-structured interviews (Stone, 1978). This exercise is a variation on the standard Delphi Method forming of itself a Delphi Round 3 input to the research.
At the time of submission the research project is at write-up stage and the full findings have yet to be finalised. Five key recurring themes have been identified: - Culture and subcultures in higher education quality assurance. - Resistance to change impact on quality assurance. - Role of faith or trust in the quality assurance system. - Impacts and effects of declared and undeclared power. - Roles, responsibilities and agency. By the time of the conference in September the conclusions and findings will be finalised.
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