The issue of quality in higher education in Australia, as
elsewhere, remains problematic. This is not surprising given that past
and current approaches at both the institutional and sectoral levels
have tended to focus on the assurance, assessment, monitoring, and
reporting of quality rather than on the improvement of quality itself.
Quality is not something that needs simply to be monitored and measured.
Rather, it must be actively managed with a view to continuous
improvement and development. This paper describes a model for continuous
improvement of quality in higher education and the central role that
professional development plays in such a process.
The issue of quality in higher education institutions in Australia,
as elsewhere, remains problematic. Fundamental questions like:
* What is it?
* How can it be assured, maintained and developed?
* How should it be reported? remain largely unresolved.
Despite nearly a decade of research and development on the part of
academics, policy makers, and others, a clear definition of what is
meant by quality in higher education has eluded us. As Harvey and Green
(1993) have suggested, `quality' can mean a number of things:
`excellence', `perfection' (or consistency), `fitness for
purpose', `value for money', and `transformation'.
Exactly which is relevant at any particular time is, in large part,
contextually defined. Depending on who is using the term and for what
purpose, quality might assume any one or more of these meanings. For
example, at times of program review when financiers need to make
decisions about which programs should continue to be funded and which
should be dropped, quality often means `fitness for purpose'.
Questions like: `Does an innovation/process adequately meet the
purpose(s) for which it was designed?' become of prime importance.
However, in reporting the impact of a program or innovation on
student learning, reviewers might use the term `quality' in what
Harvey and Green (1993) have called its `transformative' sense, to
indicate that a qualitative or fundamental change has occurred in
students' understanding of particular concepts.
Lack of clarity over meaning has resulted in much confusion and
protracted debate. Any survey of the literature on quality in higher
education over the last five years reveals the extent to which this lack
of conceptual clarity has contributed to the relatively slow development
of the area as a field of research and investigation. Despite the
enormous amount of thinking and work that has been undertaken in the
area by a large number of individuals in a variety of different national
and institutional settings, the highly political nature of
`quality' has kept the focus of the debate on the theoretical
issues of defining the concept and ways and means of measuring it,
rather than on the practical issues of assuring, maintaining and
developing quality within our institutions and their programs.
The almost universal adoption of institutional level, external
quality monitoring and assessment procedures for accountability purposes
(Harvey, 1998; Yorke, 1996) has, to a large extent, guaranteed a lack of
any significant impact on improving the `quality' of the day-to-day
work of teachers or researchers (Vroeijenstijn, 1995). Quality, it
seems, has and is treated by policy makers in many countries (see, for
example, the quality processes that have developed in Australia, the
United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and France) as something that can be
considered independently of the day-to-day management cycles of
institutions and the activities of their staff.
Annual/biennial/triennial cycles of external audit designed to monitor
and report upon institutional policies, procedures, and performance are
assumed to be sufficient to guarantee quality in teaching, research, and
However, as numerous studies over the last 20 years have shown (see
Berman & McLaughlin, 1975; Datta, 1981; Elmore, 1978; Fullen, 1991;
Marshall, 1993; McDonnell & Elmore, 1987), policy intentions, such
as the maintenance and development of quality in educational
institutions, are rarely realised through the use of policy instruments
designed to measure or monitor compliance with externally mandated
standards or procedures. On the contrary, studies of policy processes in
educational contexts (see Edwards & Sharkansky, 1978; LaRocque,
1987; Marshall, 1993) have revealed that such approaches frequently lead
to a focus on the part of policy makers and policy implementers on the
clarity and specificity (or definition) of the policy itself, in an
effort to ensure that policy implementers appropriately understand the
policy and can appropriately measure and account for their practice.
Further, such approaches, according to Owens (1987), `rest heavily on
management initiative' (p. 213). The processes of designing and
developing quality assurance procedures, defining standards for
measuring outcomes, and developing and implementing monitoring and
review mechanisms are usually undertaken by senior management. Frontline
staff (academic or general whose principal responsibilities are teaching
and research or supporting these activities) are rarely directly
involved in designing and developing these processes and procedures. It
is not surprising, therefore, to find that such approaches to policy
development and implementation rarely result in change at the level of
individual or organisational practice beyond bureaucratic compliance
with the administrative procedures required (La Rocque, 1987; Marshall,
What is needed is a new, more flexible understanding of what
quality might be in higher education, and an approach to policy
development and implementation that:
* engages higher education institutions at all levels:
institutional, unit, and individual,
* is integrated and coherent with the day-to-day work undertaken in
such institutions by their staff, and
* is focused on maintaining and developing quality in addition to
defining and assuring it.
Definitions of quality
Research by Berman and McLaughlin (1975), Fullan (1991), LaRocque
(1987), and Marshall (1993) has suggested that the processes of policy
development and policy implementation are mutually adaptive. Approaches
to the implementation of policy are largely determined by the nature of
the policy itself and the context in which it is being implemented.
However, as implementation occurs and the policy is interpreted in the
light of the context in which it is being implemented, new
understandings of the nature and definition of the policy are developed
by both policy makers and policy implementers. It is argued here that
this is in fact what happens when one sets out deliberately to improve
quality. Definitions of quality are contingent upon the processes by
which, and the contexts in which, it is being implemented. The act of
maintaining and developing quality is an on-going process of definition:
definition of what quality really means in a particular context and how
one should go about maintaining and developing it in such a context.
Quality in teaching and quality in research clearly need to be defined
differently. The purposes, processes, and outcomes of teaching and
research are different and, consequently, different definitions and
approaches to maintaining and developing it are needed.
But how can one establish an organisational environment in which
the issue of quality is treated as an ongoing process of definition and
where the processes of maintaining and developing quality are integrated
and coherent with the day-to-day work of staff, and engage higher
education institutions at all levels--institutional, unit, and
individual? It is a matter of both organisational and individual
Traditional approaches to organisational development
Traditionally, organisations (including institutions of higher
education) have treated matters of organisational and individual
development as separate, somewhat parallel activities. Processes of
organisational, unit, and/or program review and revision occur quite
distinctly from cycles/processes of individual staff appraisal and
professional development. Frequently, they are undertaken by expert,
external reviewers who `parachute in and out' of the organisation
for a short period of time to be briefed as to their role, collect data,
validate the data, and prepare and present their report.
Members of the organisation, unit, or program being reviewed assume
the role of `subjects of the research/evaluation'--their
contribution being limited to the provision of information and, if they
are lucky, to the confirmation of any interpretations made by the
reviewers. Reports of such reviews are generally addressed to
management, and responsibility for decisions regarding any action that
might need to be taken in light of the review findings are assumed by
Individuals working `at the coal-face' (the academic and
general staff of the unit/program being evaluated) often have little
chance to influence the evaluation agenda, determine the method(s) of
evaluation, contribute to the interpretation of findings, or participate
in the development of strategies for overcoming any difficulties or
weaknesses identified. Furthermore, where recommendations for
professional development are made in such reviews, professional
development is often treated as a prescription for overcoming individual
weaknesses--something to be provided for and done to staff to overcome
deficiencies in their current level of knowledge and/or skill. Rarely is
its relationship and/or contribution to the development of the
organisation made clear or explicitly explained.
Traditional approaches to professional development
Traditional approaches to professional development have also tended
to treat the development of individuals as separate from the development
of the organisation/units/programs in which they work (Darling-Hammond,
1990). They have been based on a view that:
* professional development is about improving individuals'
knowledge and skills through the transmission of information;
* knowledge created by one set of individuals in one context (the
professional developers in their offices) will be meaningful and readily
transferred to another (the academic and general staff in their
* responsibility for planning, developing, implementing, and
evaluating professional development is best located with the
experts--the professional developers.
Thus, we have a long history in higher education institutions of
establishing professional development centres, staffed by expert
trainers, who provide a wide range of one-off workshops and seminars, on
a variety of different topics deemed by themselves and other experts
(institutional leaders and managers) to be relevant to the needs of
Frequently, separate centres or organisational units are
established to cater for the professional development of academic and
general staff, on the belief that, fundamentally, the professional
development needs of these two groups of staff are somehow different.
Despite these perceptions, however, methodologies vary little between
the two, with one-off workshops and seminars focusing on the
dissemination of information, the primary mode of delivery used in both.
Little opportunity is accorded participants to define the agendas of
these sessions or to ensure that these agendas emerge from, or
contribute to, the development of the particular knowledge and skills
that individual participants need in their everyday activities as
teachers, researchers, administrators and specialist support staff.
`One-size-fits-all' seems to be the underlying assumption.
Furthermore, higher education institutions have tended to develop
and implement professional development policies and processes quite
separately from policy and program development and implementation in
core activities like teaching, research, and community outreach/service.
In many higher education institutions, professional development staff
have little or no involvement in key policy-making or decision-making
groups and, thus, little or no opportunity to contribute to, or benefit
from (in terms of learning how to target their programs and activities)
the discussion, debate, and decisions made in these groups. Decisions
with regard to teaching-, research-, and community outreach-development
are often made without the benefit of input from the relevant
experts--those who have made a career out of the study and practice of
developing these core areas of higher education activity.
More recently, albeit somewhat slowly, approaches to professional
development in higher education institutions have begun to embrace a new
philosophy--one which recognises the centrality of Schon's (1983)
notion of `reflective practice' in the development of professional
knowledge and skills. These approaches engage staff in the `analysis of
their own practice so that emerging problems can be resolved through the
generation and testing of hypotheses' in situ (Smyth, 1991, p. 9).
The role of professional development, in such an approach, is to assist
staff to identify and diagnose practical problems of importance to them
and over which they have discretionary control, with the view to helping
them to formulate their own solutions to these problems, and thus
assisting them to improve the quality of their work.
In many professional development programs, efforts to get staff to
reflect upon their practice as teachers, researchers, or community
outreach workers arise in the context of asking participants in
workshops, seminars or formal courses of study (e.g. graduate
certificates in higher education):
* to reflect upon a particular aspect of their work (e.g. a change
* to describe it (what the change was, how it was effected, etc.);
* to analyse it (in terms of a given framework);
* to share their descriptions and analyses with their fellow
* to summarise their collective understanding of this aspect of
their work (i.e. the nature and experience of change).
The purpose of such activities is often cited as being to develop a
better understanding of individual and collective approaches to the
chosen aspect of participants' work (e.g. change) so that future
efforts in relation to this aspect of their work might be handled more
However, although such approaches to professional development have
proven to be effective in facilitating individual and group learning
(Warren-Little, 1990), and have been warmly embraced by participants for
facilitating the collegial exchange of ideas that so many seek, there is
mounting evidence to suggest that they are insufficient in improving the
quality of teaching, research, community outreach/service, and
administrative and specialist support (Smith, 1993). The fundamental
weakness of such approaches has been well recognised in the professional
development literature for many years (Fullan, 1992; Pink, 1989; Roark
& Davis, 1981; Smyth, 1991; Wood, Thompson, & Russell, 1981).
Although participants are often inspired and motivated during and
shortly after participating in such programs to implement or act upon
the new understandings that they develop through such activities, their
motivation and resolve to change soon dwindles when they return to their
schools, departments, and offices and face the constraining and
sometimes openly hostile realities of their workplaces. Departmental
policies and processes, cultures, ideologies, and values at odds with
the principles of better practice identified during such professional
development activities often lead to staff `choosing the easier
road' and continuing to practise as before. Under such
circumstances, while the individual may have grown and developed, the
organisation has remained stuck and, consequently, limited if any
improvement in the quality of process or outcome (be it in teaching,
research, community outreach/service, administration or specialist
support) can result.
Clearly, what is and will be needed in higher education
institutions of the 21st century is a model of professional development
which not only focuses on and facilitates individual learning and the
improvement of quality of individual teaching, research, and so on, but
one which supports and facilitates organisational learning and
development at the same time. Such a model of professional development
will need to go beyond both the individually focused `transmission of
expert knowledge' and `reflection on practice' models
described, to a model of on-going, critical, reflective practice that is
integrated into all aspects of the core business of higher education
institutions. Only in this way will we be able to overcome the barriers
associated with individuals developing their knowledge and skills while
organisational knowledge, and the policies and processes that it
informs, remain stuck in the past.
But how do organisations learn and how can such learning be
First and foremost, it is important to recognise that organisations
do not learn. To speak of universities or organisations as
`learning' or `creating their future' reifies them. It is the
individuals within them who learn. An organisation's capacity to
respond, adapt, and create is only as great as the capacity of its staff
to do so individually and collectively.
Thus, to facilitate `organisational learning' one must focus
on developing and implementing policies and procedures to support
individual development which:
* are guided, informed, facilitated, and supported by the
developing strategies, structures, and environment of the institutions
of which they are a part, and
* readily enable the organisation to `tap into' the developing
knowledge and skills of its staff
In Senge's (1990) terms, effective professional development
policies and practices must encourage and develop the disciplines of:
* systems thinking
* personal mastery
* working with mental models
* building shared vision
* team learning.
`Systems thinking' is the discipline of thinking in terms of
the whole, rather than in terms of parts of the whole. For example, in
contemplating how a particular discipline might increase its research
capacity and output, consideration would be given to the full range of
factors, internal and external to the discipline and the institution,
that might facilitate or constrain the research activity of the
discipline. Such factors might include limitations on the discipline and
research knowledge of the staff, the number of graduate research
students in the discipline, and the level of resources available to
support research in the discipline. By focusing on the whole,
individuals and organisations are able to develop a better understanding
of the interconnectedness of issues and thus are able to develop more
effective strategies to deal with them.
The discipline of `personal mastery' is the discipline of
learning how to generate and sustain `creative tension,' or the
tension that arises due to the juxtaposition of personal vision (what we
want or where we want to be) with a clear picture of current reality
(where we are relative to what we want). Higher education institutions
need staff at all levels who are capable of articulating a personal
vision, identifying the structural, human, political, and cultural
forces that facilitate or constrain the realisation of this vision, and
learning how to overcome or exploit these forces.
Within the context of their institution's vision, goals and
priorities, individuals must be able to articulate their own personal
vision, identify the range of forces that facilitate or constrain the
realisation of this vision, and plan and put into effect strategies for
developing the knowledge and skills required to overcome them.
Working with mental models
The discipline of `working with mental models' is the
discipline of turning the mirror inward, learning to unearth our
internal pictures of the world to bring them to the surface and hold
them rigorously to scrutiny (Senge, 1990, p. 9). It also includes the
ability to carry on `learningful' conversations that balance
inquiry and advocacy, where people effectively expose their own thinking
and make that thinking open to the influence of others. In doing so,
they are able to uncover the nature of the forces that inhibit and
constrain them and their organisation from realising their individual
and shared goals and objectives.
Smyth (1991) offers a useful four-stage process by which staff of
higher education institutions might examine and work with their mental
models. First, individuals or groups need to be encouraged to create a
text for analysis. This, he has argued, can be achieved by assisting
them to describe what they do (p. 113) (e.g. getting staff to describe
their quality assurance procedures). Second, they must uncover the broad
principles that are informing (consciously or otherwise) their policies,
decisions, or actions (p. 114). Third, they must confront these theories
or general principles with a form of `interrogation and questioning that
establishes something about their legitimacy and their legacy' (p.
115). Staff might be encouraged to ask:
* What do my(our) practices say about my(our) assumptions, values,
and beliefs about ...?
* Where did these ideas come from?
* What social practices are expressed in these ideas?
* What is it that causes me to maintain my theories?
* What views of power do they embody?
* Whose interests seem to be served by my practices?
* What is it that acts to constrain my(our) views of what is
possible in ...?
Finally, having developed an understanding through critical
reflection of this kind that workplace realities are not immutable
givens but are the creations of others and therefore essentially
contestable (p. 116), individuals and the organisational units of which
they are a part are able to reconstruct their understandings and
practices and tackle freely the question of how they might change in
order to improve their existing practices.
However, such open critical analysis of one's assumptions,
beliefs and values, whether undertaken at an individual or group level,
requires great courage and is very risky in the highly competitive
environments characteristic of higher education institutions.
Consequently, one of the biggest challenges in effecting effective
professional and organisational development lies in the capacity of
higher education institutions to encourage and reward staff to take the
attendant risks associated with learning through open, critical inquiry
of their work and workplace.
Building shared vision
The discipline of building shared vision is the discipline of
unearthing shared `pictures of the future' that foster genuine
commitment and enrolment of staff rather than compliance (Senge, 1990).
Effective professional development policies and practices focus on, and
are integral to, the realisation of collaboratively and collegially
developed shared visions. As such, professional development policies and
practices should engage all staff in the process of defining their own
and their organisational unit's vision, within the context of their
institution's overall vision, goals, and mission.
Team learning is the process of aligning and developing the
capacity of a team to create the results its members truly desire. It
involves learning how to tap the potential of many minds, how to develop
`operational trust' where each team member remains conscious of
other team members and can be counted on to act in ways that complement
each others' actions, how to master the processes of dialogue and
discussion, and how to deal creatively with the forces opposing
productive dialogue and discussion.
Effective professional development policies and practices encourage
and support the development of effective team learning--that is,
professional development policies and practice throughout higher
education institutions should encourage and assist schools, departments,
and offices to develop team-based approaches to their organisation and
work to ensure that the learning of individual staff can readily and
effectively be shared among the other members of the unit or
Professional development for higher education institutions of the
If quality processes and outcomes are to be realised in higher
education institutions of the 21st century, then there must be
institutional-wide commitment to continuous quality improvement and
continuous process improvement in all aspects of the organisation's
core business: teaching, research, community outreach/service,
leadership and management, administrative support, and specialist
support. Professional development must be integrated into the processes
and activities of higher education institutions at all levels.
* At the institutional or macro level, professional development
activities should focus on assisting the institution, its schools,
departments, and offices to develop a strong and coherent policy
framework and organisational infrastructure (with the necessary links
between professional development policy and process and those of
strategic planning, quality assurance, and personnel management) to
encourage and support organisational learning and the realisation of its
vision, goals and priorities.
* At the work group or meso level, professional development
activities should focus on assisting work groups and teams to function
more effectively as learning groups, by drawing upon the individual and
collective knowledge and skills of team members, to identify and deal
with areas of group learning and behaviour that need to be improved for
the group and institution to function more effectively and realise their
vision, goals and priorities.
* At the individual or micro level, professional development
activities should focus on assisting individuals to develop the
knowledge and skills necessary to excel in their chosen field of work
and to realise their personal vision, goals, and priorities within the
context of their institution's vision, goals, and priorities.
At the macro level, institutional policy and infrastructure should
encourage and support the realisation of the institution's vision
and the development of the five essential disciplines of a learning
organisation. Strategic planning processes should build upon the
personal visions of institutional staff; program, course and
organisational unit review processes should encourage, reward, and act
upon genuine critical assessment of existing work practices;
remuneration packages and research grant programs should genuinely
encourage and reward team-based approaches to work.
At the meso level, professional development should focus on
assisting groups of individuals to understand how they and their
institution might tap the knowledge and expertise of the group so that
they can be more effective in realising the vision, goals, and strategic
priorities of the institution and the organisational unit(s) to which
they belong. For example, professional development activities should
assist groups to understand more about how teams work, where leadership
might reside in teams, how to communicate effectively in teams, and how
to get things done effectively in teams.
At the micro level, individuals should be assisted to develop:
* knowledge and skills of professional practice (i.e. the
functional knowledge and skills required to practise effectively in
teaching, research, community outreach, leadership and management, or
administrative or specialist support, and the knowledge and skills of
scholarship and professional inquiry required to keep abreast of
developments in their area of work) (see Figure 1);
Figure 1 A conceptual framework for professional development
Note: The author is indebted to his colleagues Moya Adams, Bronwyn
Clarke, and Andrew Litchfield for their contributions in the development
of this framework.
* the leadership and management knowledge and skills required to
lead and manage the planning, development, implementation and evaluation
of change in each of their institution's core areas of activity
(e.g. the introduction of a new program of studies within an academic
discipline; the introduction of major new technology, or a work redesign
process in an area to improve customer service);
* the generic knowledge and skills necessary to facilitate the
systems thinking, personal mastery, critical inquiry, shared vision
building, and team work essential to the development of a learning
organisation (e.g. effective communication, negotiation, conflict
resolution, team working skills).
Thus, professional development activities for higher education
institutions of the 21st century share three essential characteristics:
* They focus on facilitating or supporting the strategic priorities
and organisational development initiatives of the institution and
organisational units to which the targeted staff members belong.
* They meet the learning needs of individuals in each of the three
key areas of learning required (i.e. professional practice, leadership
and management, and generic).
* They facilitate and support the development of the five essential
disciplines of a learning organisation (systems thinking, personal
mastery, critical inquiry, building shared vision, and team learning).
Professional development activities
A range of different activities might be employed or engaged in by
individuals or organisational units to facilitate such an approach to
professional development. These include:
* formal/structured activities like outside study program (OSP)
leave, conferences, workshops, and site visits; and
* informal/unstructured activities like meetings and discussion
However, for the purposes of audit, activities should not be
considered to be legitimate professional development activities unless
they can be shown significantly to include elements of each of three of
the criteria outlined above.
An appropriate array of professional development activities for
academic staff of a discipline in which a strategic priority is `to
develop the research capacity and output of the discipline' might
1 OSP leave for staff to update their current knowledge of the
state of the discipline (provided that there is a requirement that the
knowledge gained is shared with other staff in the discipline and that
it is used to benefit directly the discipline through the development of
a research grant application or the like);
2 enrolment in formal award courses in research methodology;
3 attendance at workshops or seminars on applying for and
developing successful research grants;
4 participation in workshops on `disseminating your research
5 mentoring programs to develop the skills of postgraduate
6 attendance at conferences to explore the issues associated with
leading and managing a research unit/team;
7 participation in workshops on how to audit the discipline's
8 team-building activities for staff within the discipline or
within a research team.
Activities 1 to 5 are designed to provide participants with the
opportunity to develop knowledge of and skills in the professional
practice required to meet their discipline's strategic priority.
Activities 6 and 7 are designed to provide participants with the
opportunity to develop the leadership and management knowledge and
skills that they require to meet their discipline's strategic
Activity 8 assists participants to develop some of the generic
knowledge and skills that they require to meet their discipline's
While in each case these activities assist participants to develop
the personal mastery required to meet the discipline's strategic
priority, they also assist participants to develop:
* a holistic (or systems) view of the state of their discipline, of
research, and of research management in their discipline;
* a personal vision for research in the discipline within the
context of the university's own strategic priorities;
* skills in critical inquiry; and
* team work.
In doing so, they provide the individual participants, and thus
their discipline and institution, with further opportunities to develop
the five essential disciplines of a learning organisation.
If higher education institutions now and in the future are to
realise their quality agendas, then they must move beyond current models
of institutional level, external quality monitoring and assessment. They
must adopt new process models which reflect institutional and individual
commitment to continuous quality improvement and continuous process
improvement. Integrated and coherent organisational and individual
learning must therefore be a central feature of higher education
institutions of the future. Models and approaches to professional
development must move beyond the separate and individually focused
`transmission of expert knowledge' and `reflection on
practice' approaches that have been characteristic of higher
education institutions' efforts in this area to date, and embrace
an ongoing, coherent, critically reflective approach that is integrated
into all aspects of the core business of higher education institutions.
Institutions must work hard to develop cultures of critical
inquiry, focused on continuous quality and process improvement. They
must ensure that quality processes and outcomes are central to the
vision, goals and priorities of all staff and organisational units. They
must provide policy frameworks and infrastructures that support and
encourage individuals and groups to take the attendant risks associated
with exposing their existing thinking and practices to public scrutiny.
They must also provide the resources and facilities needed to support
staff in their efforts to develop their knowledge and skills of
professional practice, leadership and management, teamwork,
communication, negotiation and conflict resolution--all of which are
necessary to support and maintain quality in learning organisations of
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Yorke, M. (1996). Shouldn't quality be enhanced, rather than
assessed? Tertiary Education and Management, 2(1), 86-94.
Dr Stephen Marshall is Acting Director of the Centre for
Professional Development at Macquarie University, North Ryde, New South
Key areas of Individual learning
Area: of organisational Functio- Scholar- Leader- Generic
activity nal ship & ship &
university outcome assessment