Opinion – Pursuing quality and relevance in higher education: Part 2

Home Focus Opinion – Pursuing quality and relevance in higher education: Part 2

One of the critical determinants of quality assurance, quality management and quality enhancement in higher education institutions is student experience in the whole process of education. Student experience is taken into consideration in evaluating the learning experience that takes place, and how it contributes to the improvement of the quality of education being offered in higher education institutions.
There are many issues that come into the question of student experience. Some scholars have argued that students’ evaluations should not be taken seriously in quality assurance in higher education. The reason that is often advanced for dismissing student experience or evaluation is that students are not qualified to effectively assess or evaluate their learning experiences and the performance of their lecturers. It is also argued that, although we talk of student experience, students themselves are not fully experienced in giving meaning evaluations that can be used to improve the quality of education. In this school of thought, students are treated as passive participants who do not know what higher education institutions are providing them. This view has often been described as a tabla rasa view, an opinion that treats students as having blank minds that are ready to only receive information without processing it. This view overlooks the fact that students are vital stakeholders who provide useful feedback that can be used in the improvement of the quality of education.

Gauging students’ satisfaction in the quality of teaching has been used by higher education institutions recently to enhance and manage the quality of their education. In other words, institutions which take student experience or feedback seriously are the ones that are concerned with constantly reviewing their programmes in a bid to offer quality and relevant education to their students. Such institutions religiously solicit feedback from students and use some of the information in revising their programmes. It is, therefore, the conducive environment that institutions create that influences the students’ views of quality education. Students’ perceptions of the quality of their programmes are then used by institutions to enhance the quality of the programmes. In fact, literature shows that many quality assurance authorities insist on student experience or evaluation in the process of the accreditation of programmes. For the quality assurance authorities or agencies, and higher education institutions, gathering feedback in the form of student experience has become a vital practice in the process of ensuring quality education. Students in higher education institutions provide useful information by expressing their perceptions and expectations of quality education. Therefore, it is of paramount importance for institutions to put in place effective quality evaluation mechanisms that involve students as key stakeholders in the quality assurance exercise. Quality assurance policies must explicitly provide for the role students play in the enhancement of quality in their education. The role students play in quality assurance must be understood by students themselves, lecturers, heads of departments, deans, teaching and learning units and quality assurance units so that there is no conflict in the chain during the implementation of the quality assurance process. In institutions that have developed a strong culture of quality assurance across the board, students freely express their perceptions of the quality of education through evaluations of the content of the programmes and the quality of teaching. In so doing, students also evaluate whether the major learning outcomes of the programmes have been achieved or maybe there is a need to adjust or completely overhaul some of the unattainable ones. According to literature on quality assurance, if students are expected to gain certain skills by going through programmes, it is easy for them to judge whether they have acquired the skills or not. In some cases, they do not even need to complete the programme before they can tell whether they are gaining the skills, or they are wasting their time. Also, students can easily evaluate quality teaching and recommend areas for improvement to management. 
Institutions have various evaluation forms that have different aspects that students make comments on in order to improve the quality of education.

In the interest of openness and accountability, students, through their structures, comment on the infrastructure and the whole learning environment in their institutions. The environment in which learning and teaching take place is crucial to the quality of education that students receive. The shortage of teaching space has negatively impacted on many public higher education institutions across the world. With mass education in these institutions, resources and infrastructure that were meant for fewer students have been stretched to cater for multitudes, and in the end, this has reduced the quality of education. When student bodies complain to authorities about the poor infrastructure and shortage of equipment, this is an indication that the institutions are compromising on the quality of education. There is no meaningful learning taking place where a computer laboratory with 50 desktop computers is used to teach 100 students at the same time. In most cases, only half of the computers will be functioning. This might sound like an exaggeration, but it is the reality in some institutions. In this regard, institutions need to ensure the quality of the learning environment by taking action immediately.

It is also common practice now that student representatives sit in meetings with academics at departmental, faculty and senate levels. These student representatives give feedback on the quality of teaching and other issues to academics so that remedies can be found without delay where necessary.

There is no doubt that institutions of higher education want to provide quality education to their students. The issue of quality assurance in higher education should be taken from a multi-pronged approach that includes student experience as a key factor. It is, therefore, a reality that students have a big stake in quality assurance in higher