Quality Assurance v Quality Enhancement – what’s the difference?

What's the difference?

What’s the difference between Quality Assurance and Quality Enhancement? They sound the same but both are very different philosophies. For a number of years – at least as long as I’ve been teaching – QA was a key aspect of further and higher education in the UK with entire departments dedicated to it. The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) is an established part of the education landscape, set up to ‘safeguard standards and improve the quality of higher education’ via a regime of inspections and guidance.

When I moved to Scotland, however, I experienced a different approach. There the QAA adopted a ‘quality enhancement’ (QE) approach which was less about making sure everything was up to scratch, and more about continuous improvement based on honest reflection. The difference is marked, and the result is quite liberating. Conversations about teaching and learning seemed to be more open and collaborative and less about ‘looking over your shoulder’ and worrying about paperwork. It appealed to me because it is very close to the design thinking approach to innovation where things are designed through prototype and iteration rather than presented finished, complete and impossible to change regardless of what flaws become apparent.

Returning to England in 2013 I began talking about QE and found I had to explain the concept a lot, but gradually began to notice it creeping in to conversation and documentation. However, I think it’s one of those terms that gets used a lot, without people necessarily understanding what it means.

Most important to me is that enhancement is an iterative process that benefits from allowing people to experiment and even to fail (the skill is in ensuring the failure is graceful). QE facilitates innovation whereas QA seems to militate against it. An organisation that is overly focused on standardisation and quality assurance will not see a great deal of innovation, except in secret and usually as a way of overcoming the rules (i.e. rebelling). Conversely an organisation that focuses on standards and quality enhancement will empower those within it to innovate openly.

Note the difference between standards and standardisation – this is something that people often miss, and get the two mixed up. In bureaucratic organisations, ‘standards’ and ‘standardisation’ are the same thing. They shouldn’t be.

So what are the key differences between QA and QE?

This table is adapted from Swinglehurst (2008) Peer Observation of Teaching in the Online Environment: an action research approach. In the original, QA and QE are presented as opposite ends of a spectrum, implying that it’s possible (and maybe preferable) to adopt a position anywhere in between the two extremes.

Quality Assurance

Quality Enhancement

Focus on teaching

Focus on learning

Teaching as individual “performance”

Learning as “social practice”

Focus on monitoring/judgement

Focus on professional development

“Top down” implementation by managers not active in teaching

Active engagement of senior staff and teachers during implementation

Inflexible, non-negotiable approach based on “standards”

Flexible context-sensitive approach based on building professional knowledge

Little acknowledgment of the link between teaching and research

Seeks to establish links between teaching and research, through reflection on practice

May undermine professional autonomy through monitoring and surveillance activity

Respects and values professional autonomy

Focuses on the teacher as an individual practitioner

Seeks to increase collaboration between teachers and across disciplines

Emphasis on documentation

Emphasis on discussion

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