Written by Dr J.P. Nel, MD of Mentornet (Pty) Ltd
One of the quality criteria that Higher Education Quality Assurance Bodies (HEQABs) love to check when evaluating Higher Education Learning Institutions (HEIs) applying for accreditation is if they have an agreement with other learning institutions to conduct external quality assurance of their student performance. This is a type of peer review. The second type of peer review that they make use of is to have members of accredited (HEIs) evaluate applicants for accreditation against certain quality criteria.
The above sounds like a good system, right? Wrong, it is a quality assurance system that ignores every single principle of quality assurance.
To begin with, the approach is unfair. HEQABs should not make it compulsory for HEIs to close agreements with peers. Peer review should always be a voluntary process. Peer review group members should be contracted only by the bodies responsible for the activation and administration of reviews. They should never be contracted by the institution being evaluated. Requiring HEIs to arrange their own performance peer review by closing agreements with other learning institutions is a form of capillary power in which learning institutions are seduced into policing themselves.
Secondly, the approach is not transparent. Peers should be independent and of equal standing as the institution being evaluated. This means that the institution being evaluated must know who the peer is and have sufficient opportunities to discuss quality issues with the evaluator. Bodies responsible for the activation and administration of peer reviews should publish clear and transparent guidelines regarding the selection of reviewers and the criteria and processes to be used. Peer review should always include a site visit and should include discussions with and feedback to the institution being quality assured. In practice, site visits seldom take place and discussions with the people who did the peer review is not allowed. In fact, it is sometimes impossible to find out from the HEQAB who actually conducted the evaluation.
Thirdly, the approach is not developmental. Peer review should lead to mutual learning for both parties and should never be a one sided affair. Peer review should achieve transparency, visibility and comparability of equal standards. It should be a focused exchange of experiences and knowledge. In addition, peers should always count among their number independent, external experts who possess appropriate skills and who are competent to perform their evaluation functions. Some HEQABs refuse to accept their responsibility to provide guidance and support to learning institutions applying for accreditation. Mutual learning is not possible because the applicant does not even know who the peer or peers are. One actually gets the impression that these HEQABs try to catch applicants out rather than to add value to the educational system. Is it possible that they do not have the capacity to do what is expected of them? Feedback by peers should always be critical yet sympathetic. HEQAB feedback is often limited to a vague and unsubstantiated written report.
Fourthly, the approach is not sufficient. Peer review should never be used just because the quality assurance body does not have the capacity to conduct quality assurance. Some HEQABs rely entirely on peer review as an evaluation approach, making it a subjective and one-sided process.
Fifthly, peer review should be valid, authentic and reliable. Peer review can easily become an abusive relay of power if the HEQAB has political motives in mind. The involvement of public universities to evaluate private higher education learning institutions can become a strategy to ensure that private learning providers do not become competition for such universities. This is especially valid in the current South African environment with students rioting on many different grounds, thereby threatening the future existence of public universities.
Six, peer review should be flexible and practicable. Peer review based on a large number of different quality standards or criteria can easily lead to a compliance culture and generate excessive bureaucracy. In addition, only evidence of compliance submitted online is accepted. There are no alternative methods to submit evidence, making it impossible to submit the bulk of evidence which a reputable quality assurance body would consider. The viability of a qualification can, for example, not be evaluated without checking the contents of the learning materials.
In closing, peer review should be based on voluntary cooperation between HEIs. It is most certainly not a way in which quality assurance bodies can overcome lack of capacity. Peers should do the following:
- Use common instruments and criteria.
- Strengthen open communication in the interest of protecting and promoting the interests of the students.
- Increase the relevance of higher education through systematic involvement of all relevant partners.
- Identify and launch projects of common interest to improve the quality of learning offered by both parties involved in peer review.