Aligning QA and School Competitiveness

[Address to Concurrent Session of FAPE Convention:  Education Leadership for Global Competitiveness and Sustainability:  Responding to the Challenges of ASEAN 2015.  Dec. 3, 2013]

The topic assigned to me is “Aligning Quality Assurance (QA) and School Competitiveness” within the context the theme of this national educational conference:  “Educational Leadership for Global Competitiveness and Sustainability: Responding to the Challenges of ASEAN 2015.”

For this talk, I build on the inputs yesterday of Atty. Teresita Manzala, the Chairperson of the Philippine Regulatory Commission, in her Plenary Talk on “Understanding the Qualifications Framework for ASEAN 2015:  Opportunities and Challenges for Philippine Education.

The Philippine Qualifications Framework (PQF) relates the ASEAN Mutual Recognition Arrangement (MRA) and the ASEAN Qualifications Reference Framework (AQRF).  Mobility of practitioners in ASEAN presumes ability on the ASEAN level to recognize their qualifications.  It is the qualifications (not the nationalities, nor the religions, nor the social class, nor the educational origins, nor “connections”) that will bring the jobs.  As qualifications are recognized  for specific disciplines through the AMRA, and translated, compared, recognized and harmonized on the ASEAN level through a common reference framework (AQRF),  the PQF is about Philippine qualifications, now in the ASEAN context.  The PQF is our National Qualifications Framework (NQF) in the ASEAN context.  It is the QF that we determine in our autonomy, but that we choose to align with ASEAN in rationality and pragmatism.  It lists the qualifications,  places them in order of complexity of learning outcomes, and necessitates that our educational institutions, public and private, “develop these qualifications,” that is, that they assemble the faculties, facilities, libraries, laboratories and the like to train, form and educate students through appropriate educational programs and cultures to reach these qualifications.  Otherwise, neither their institutions nor their students will be fit for ASEAN 2015.  Otherwise, students with these qualifications from other countries may be more qualified for jobs in the Philippines than our graduates.  Otherwise, the efficiency, innovativeness or responsiveness of other countries’ educational institutions  in meeting the demands of the ASEAN populations may overcome our schools.  The PQF links the country to ASEAN and the ASEAN to the country.  It is the document which states what in the Philippines Basic Education must achieve and what Tertiary Education must achieve, whether technical or academic.

It is therefore a matter of deep concern that in the Philippines this is still a work in progress, and that it is today still legally founded merely on an executive order (E.O. 83 s. 2012)[JFR1] .  This E.O. mandates that the PQF get done.  It is not yet done.  Gearing up for ASEAN 2015, the PQF needs to be finished soonest based on ASEAN benchmarks for NQFs..  For the stability that education in the ASEAN context needs, it should be legislated.

The ASEAN Quality Framework for Higher Education (AQAFHE)

Since this is a forum on educational leadership, however, allow me to draw attention to the ASEAN Quality Framework for Higher Education (AQAFHE).  Many of the qualifications which produce jobs will be mediated by education.  Basic education feeds into higher education. In 2008, the South East Asian Ministers of Education” agreed on a “structured Framework for Regional Integration of Higher Education in South East Asia: the Road towards a Common Space” (SEAMEO RIHED).  This engendered collaboration between the SEAMEO RIHED, the Asian University Network, and the ASEAN Quality Assurance Network (AQAN).  In 2011 the AQAN Roundtable Meeting in Brunei decided to embark on a project to develop a quality assurance framework for higher education.  The objectives were to promote regional harmonization in higher education, and to develop a “regional reference” with which countries could voluntarily benchmark and align their own QA system for higher education.  For this purpose, an international Task Force was composed which from the Philippines included PAASCU.  Their first of four international meetings was in June 2012.  Last October, in Vietnam, the AQAN approved the AQAFHE.

The PQF is linked to ASEAN not only through the AMRA and the AQRF, but, where HE is involved, through the AQAFHE.

“The AQAFHE consists of four sets of interrelated principles, namely:

“1. The Establishment of External Quality Assurance Body (EQAB)

“2.  External Quality Assurance Standards and Processes

“3.  Institutional Internal Quality Assurance and

“4.  Qualifications National Qualifications Framework.” [i]

The AQAFHE is a “common reference point” for EQABs and HEIs as they strive towards harmonization. It uses principles and statements of good practice, and is not prescriptive.  “It seeks to provide the common ground and the common understanding of quality assurance in ASEAN…”[ii]

Based on the AQAFHE, we must note:

The EQAB is a “key player in maintaining and  sustaining the quality of education in every nation and puts in center stage the interests of the students and various stakeholders.”  The AQAFHE, among others,  states:  “The EQAB has autonomous responsibility for its operations and its decision making processes and judgments made are free from undue influence” (1.3).

Under “Principles of External Quality Assurance Processes,” the AQAFHE, among others, states: “Interests of students and society should be at the forefront of external quality assurance processes (2.1).  “The process normally involves a self-evaluation report of the program/institution, site visits, formal decisions and follow-up procedures” (2.5).  “The EQA ensures professionalism and ethical conduct of reviewers” (2.7).

Under “Principles of Institutional Quality Assurance,” the AQAFHE states, among others: “The institution has the primary responsibility for ensuring quality” (3.1).  “Quality is a social responsibility of the institution and promotes the balance between institutional autonomy and public accountability” (3.2).  “A structured quality assurance system with clearly defined responsibilities is established and functional” (3.5).

Under “Principles of National Qualifications Framework”, the AQAFHE states, among others: “It is based on learning-outcomes that emphasize student-centered learning/student’s competencies” (4.3).  “To ensure adherence, the NQF should have a legal mandate and key national policies” (4.6).  “The stakeholders must be involved in the development and implementation of NQF” (4.7).

Aligning QA and School Competitiveness?

My topic is “Aligning QA and School Competitiveness.”  Presumably “school competitiveness” here is on the ASEAN level, and therefore not merely about the competition between Ateneo and La Salle, UST and UP, nor increasingly about the competition between public and private schools in the Philippines, where the Constitution prescribes rather cooperation.  It is about the competitiveness of our schools immediately with the schools of Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, Cambodia, Australia and New Zealand – but eventually also with those of China, Japan and Korea.  Where the ASEAN competition among the schools within the AQRF will be for the development of ASEAN-appropriate qualifications notably but not exclusively for disciplines that are subject of the AMRA,[iii] based on student learning outcomes, which in turn bring student competencies and qualifications, the attempt, as suggested by the topic of this talk, to align QA to school competitiveness can be misleading.  If school competitiveness is based on solid learning outcomes and competencies, there is no problem.  But if QA is to promote a type of competitiveness which de-emphasizes the importance of learning outcomes and competencies, or denigrates the purpose (mission and vision) of the particular school in favor of “recognition” within a generic educational machinery, or downplays the resonance between the school and its stakeholders and market, in order to promote an empty competitiveness that could be based on mere name-recall or the amount of government subsidies one’s institution commands or the number of subscriptions one may have to European journals or the amount of big donors one has in Makati, it would not be helpful.

Four Components of Quality and Academic Freedom

In my view, QA must assure quality (Q).  If the institution is competitive but fails in Q, it is a diploma mill.  If the institution is competitive but fails in its mission and vision, it is soulless.  If the institution is competitive but fails to serve people and society, it is irrelevant.  Indeed, training competencies without relating them to moral imperatives within society and the globe could exacerbate moral degeneration in the country.  With Dirk van Dame,[iv] I say Q, which still has no internationally accepted definition, needs four inevitable components:  the achievement of minimum standards, the drive for distinguishing excellence in learning, the ability of the educational institution to achieve its purpose, the ability of the educational institution to meet the fair expectations of stakeholders and of the market.  These dimensions of Q are compatible with the AQAFHE.  QA must assure Q.

You have heard, I presume, of the critical position the CEAP and the PAASCU have taken relative to CMO 46 s. 2012, entitled, “Policy Standard to Enhance Quality Assurance through Outcomes-Based and Typology-Based QA.”[v]  This is not because  we are against QA;  we are dead serious about QA.   But we have serious reservations about this CMO 46.  We are now working with Com. Cynthia Bautista, Chair of the Committee on QA, to reconcile the positions;  unto this end, we have submitted a draft of a CMO on Quality Assurance that we hope will be considered as an Amendment by substitution of CMO 46. [vi]  Meanwhile, we support a new bill filed by Cong. Roman Romulo, Chair of the House Committee on Higher Education, entitled “An Act Ensuring Quality Assurance in Higher Education in all HEIs through QA” (HB 3933).

QA must assure Q.   It must not be a policy through which another type of HEI is created.  This is distracting in a QA policy.  It must not be a framework that signals what cannot work, namely, “an outcomes-based QA.”  If quality learning outcomes are to be assured, the assurance cannot be based on outcomes.  It must be based on inputs, not just on naming outputs.  It involves, as Atty. Manzala points out, the quality of implementation of curricula and the quality of faculty.  It involves libraries and facilities.  It involves faculty formation and responsible educational administrators.  As the AQAHFE states, it involves “a quality culture [that] underpins all institutional activities including teaching, learning, research, services and management” (3.4).

It also involves a deep respect for academic freedom.  Both the Constitution and RA 7722 which creates CHED deeply respect academic freedom. [vii] This is because higher education is not basic education, where prescription is appropriate.  Higher education is about the independent quest for truth in academic freedom.  Originally, universities were essentially communities of scholars and teachers who came together to find truth in academic freedom – free of the control of civil and ecclesiastical bodies, free of preset systems of thought, theologies, ideologies and the like.  The school’s eros for truth is conditioned and energized by academic freedom.  The ultimate outcomes of the higher educational process is truth, whose discovery cannot be planned, straight jacketed, regulated – esp. in the areas of critical literature, social theory, philosophy and theology.  An appropriate foreseeable outcome of civil engineering may be the ability to design a steel bridge; but what technical panel on philosophy or theology will articulate the minimum outcomes of philosophizing or theologizing when CHED “mandates” all to an undefined “quality nation”?

In this context allow me three comments.   First, the articulation of minimum standards should support academic freedom.  There is a difference between minimum standards and standards of excellence.  Between minimum standards and highest levels of excellence there is a range in which HEIs can aim at achieving higher or lower levels of excellence, depending on the discipline, the position of the discipline in the architectonic of the HEIs academic offerings,  the readiness of the HEI in academic freedom to invest more towards the achievement of higher levels of excellence.  A school may choose in academic freedom to perform better, and therefore invest more, in engineering than in music.   There is a tendency for those who set minimum standards to incorporate every best practice among the minimum standards.  The outcome of this, if successful, would be all higher education institutions doing the same thing.  But would this be good?  This would not promote independent thought, critical thinking, innovativeness, and a culture of ongoing improvement;  it would promote rather a monochrome culture of paralysis and helplessness until the gods of CHED have made their pronouncements.  There is another tendency in setting minimum standards to require all that is optimum in the form of required subjects.  This practice may “cover the matter,” but it may also militate against HEIs searching for better ways of teaching and against students learning to study important material independently of requirements.

Second, beyond minimum standards and the highest levels of excellence, it is not appropriate for government to mandate quality, most especially for private HEIs.  This is because government is not funding the mandate;  an unfunded mandate is unjust.  Private HEI’s must be invited beyond minimum standards to excellence in academic freedom.  Accepting the invitation, the private HEIs will find the private means to excel, and thereby compete in the educational market.  It is, on the other hand entirely appropriate for government, which funds SUCs and LCUs, to mandate levels of quality for which it pays.

Third, it is entirely inappropriate for a QA document to state, “Philippine higher education is mandated to contribute to building a quality nation…”  (CMO 46, Art I, Sec. 1)  CHED does not have the power to articulate this mandate (cf. RA 7722, Sec. 8), even as it fails to define the “quality nation.” As the foundational statement for the “rationale for enhancing QA,” it is a formulation which is open to easy abuse by an administration hostile to critical schools.  Because of academic freedom, it is not appropriate for CHED to subject QA to preset pragmatic national goals.  That belongs to the HEI in academic freedom.  The only acceptable rationale for enhancing QA is Q.

In sum, even government definition of minimum standards respects academic freedom, should it be constitutional and legal;  therefore it keeps minimum requirements truly minimum, and so promotes academic freedom.

Beyond minimum standards, evidenced academic excellence based on learning outcomes is the second essential component of quality.  It is the regular achievement of these levels of academic excellence that distinguishes the school and gives its brand its peculiar luster.  This is not the outcome of government prescription;  it is a decision in academic freedom.  In the Philippines, I do not believe anyone will dispute that La Salle, Ateneo, UST and UP have over the years distinguished themselves in the achievement of high standards of excellence.  This is why their names alone connote Q.  “La Salle,” “Ateneo”,  “UST” and “UP” are brands of Q based on consistent achievement of high standards of excellence  evidenced in student learning outcomes.  It must however be noted that the further a school moves away from minimum standards to standards of excellence, the more discriminating it becomes in its cut of student population.  The more discriminating the school is, the smaller its population, and the less access the general student population has to this school.  It may also be noted that the higher the standards of excellence, the higher the levels of investment in the excellence.  Ateneo, La Salle and UST are private, UP is public.  But it is inimical to Q to think Ateneo and La Salle are expensive, UST is less expensive, and UP is free.  We can opt for a free public school system, but educational Q is never cheap.  In the end, for Q, someone must pay.

The third essential component of quality is whether the school achieves its vision and mission.  The perennial identity of the school is in its vision statement; the current set of objectives of the school relative to its historical context is its mission statement.  There may be a similarity in most vision mission statements, but they are certainly not all the same, and they certainly should not be just framed and ignored on the wall.  The vision mission statement is the highest expression of institutional identity and institutional relatedness to the community appropriated in academic freedom. It is here where the HEI declares itself to be a University, a College, a Professional Institute, but here it also further defines itself to be non-sectarian, Catholic, Muslim, Protestant, for profit or non-stock-non-profit.  It also says at this particular historical time and location it will address such challenges as poverty, industrial growth, moral degeneration, inter-cultural understanding, environmental degradation, and the like.  The outcomes which evidence whether a school operation is “fit for purpose” are relevant for Q. These are not only student learning outcomes, no matter how absolutely valid these are in themselves, but outcomes relative to where the school wills itself to operate, the segment of population the school wills itself to serve,  the architectonic of disciplinal programs the school wills itself to operate, the type of research and community engagement the school wills itself to engage in, the particular student guidance and formation the school wills itself to deliver, the historical problems the school wills itself to address, and so forth.  If the school sets its Vision and Mission in academic freedom, how it martials all its resources creatively to achieve this, and internally assures itself it is achieving it, is a Q issue.  Stated otherwise,  a school for the poor that educates only the rich is a Q issue.  A school that educates only the very qualified and regularly rejects the less qualified is a Q issue.  A school that succeeds in forming successful engineers from students who come from deficient basic educational backgrounds is a Q issue  It is unfortunate therefore when this dimension of Q is overlooked, and all HEIs are reduced to indeterminate ciphers of which there are allegedly too many.  It is equally unfortunate when the school’s vision and mission are just meaningless words, and not its most  fundamental and vibrant expression of academic freedom.

Finally, the fourth essential component of Q is responsiveness to market or to stakeholders.  In academic freedom, the school must be responsive to the market which will employ its graduates, and accountable to the parents who expect their children after graduation to be employed;  the school must be responsive to the expectations of such as professional groups who have a stake in the professional education of their members; the school must be responsive to the glocal market within which it operates.  At the same time, responsiveness to the market is not everything.  Q cannot be reduced to “a job” nor higher education enslaved to so-called economic progress.  There is something necessarily questionable in our higher education being aligned a priori to an ASEAN economic community.  The sovereign stakeholder in higher education is human society; in the Philippines it is Philippine society.  Neither is defined by society’s current regulative mores and meanings, the pressures of the globe, the pressures even of an envisioned shared ASEAN community.  But they are challenged by vistas of greater or deeper realizations of humanity.  Today, this may call for less consumption not more; more communication, less technology;  less depletion of natural resources, not more; more depth, less superficiality, more reflection and search for truth at our own pace.  It is profoundly disturbing, as Atty. Mansala reported to us yesterday, that in the run-up to Asean 2015 there is agreement on many things, but not ethics.  Ethics has to do not with an idolatry of money but with the human person and human society.  Human society with is inner need for ongoing humanization is Q’s sovereign stakeholder.

QA will assure the Q needed for Competitiveness

For me, if we are agreed that educational Q achieves minimum standards, drives for academic excellence, achieves the school’s mission-vision, and is responsive to the our stakeholders, QA will assure us that we are achieving Q.

QA will involve internal QA, mechanisms by which the HEIs assure themselves they are achieving Q.

It will involve external QA brought about by EQABs that function independent of the universities, the market, and government control.  The EQAB will check on the Q of the schools.  The principal mode  of external QA will be accreditation.  Accreditation certifies the Q of the school and promotes Q improvement.

In sum:  Q promoted by QA will produce the qualifications that will make us competitive in the ASEAN market.  Through our PQF, mediated by the AQAFHE resonating with the AQRF, our graduates will be competitive.  If our graduates are competitive, so too will our schools.

But a reservation which I request you to allow me to express:

Unfortunately, you cannot make the shoot of a tree grow faster into a tree by yanking it upwards.  You will uproot the shoot and kill the tree.  Unfortunately, the changes contemplated in this entire ASEAN reform cannot be unduly hastened.  Change needs time for settling, as cement needs curing before it is strong.  Otherwise, what is promising will be undermined.  What is alive will perish.

In the Philippines, we have a lot to do.   We are still trying to weather the perfect storm that K-12 is bringing us.  We have to deal with the consequences of this in higher education not only on the level of national policy, which is still not settled, but also institutionally, and on the level of disciplines as well.  For a long time, until the actual effects of this reform are captured and understood, the enunciation of minimum standards will need to be tentative.  The PQF needs to be finished and legislated.  After the debates and discussions that have been generated due to CMO 46 s. 2012, we need to put our QA house in order.  Educators, public and private, must buy in to QA in academic freedom.  The Framework of QA also needs legislation.

For the sake of insuring quality education that is competitive on the ASEAN level, let us work for integral growth in Q through QA within the framework of the AQAFHE, but let us not uproot the tree.  Deadlines must call us to life, not leave us dead.

[i] Cf. Principles and Statements of ASEAN Quality Assurance Framework in Higher Education

[ii]  Ibid.

[iii] To date: engineering, nursing, surveying, architecture, dentistry, medicine and accountancy.

[iv] Van Damme, Dirk. “Standards and Indicators in Institutional and Programme Accreditation in Higher Education: A conceptual Framework and a Proposal”

[v] Cf.  Disqualifying CHED’s Quality Assurance:  A Collection of Critical Positions on CHED Memorandum Order no 46, Series of 2012.  ADDU and CEAP, publishers.  Ateneo de Davao University Publications Office, Davao City, 2012

[vii] Section 2, RA 7772 in relation to section 5(2) of Article XIV, 1987 Constitution.

 [JFR1]Executive Order No. 83, S. 2012 which institutionalizes a PQF but what it is exactly needs to be done by the PQF national coordinating committee chaired by the DepED Secretary with TESDA, CHED, DOLE, and PRC as members.

About Joel Tabora, S.J.

Jesuit. Educator
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