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Global perspectives on quality in higher education.

Global perspectives on quality in higher education Edited by David Dunkerley and Wai Sum Wong Aldershot, Surrey: Ashgate, 2001. 160pp.

Globalization and education: The quest for quality education in Hong Kong Edited by Joshua Ka-ho Mok and Devid Kin-keung Chan Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2002. 285 pp. ISBN 962-209-556-9

The concern with quality and quality assurance has risen towards the top of the education agenda worldwide. Evaluation of higher education and of academics was once underpinned by a kind of liberalism where individualism and integrity were paramount. The days of assuming that a graduate could turn his/her hand to anything because of the demonstrable intellectual powers bestowed by a university education have passed. The dominance of academics is seriously challenged. These issues are examined by these two recent books edited by scholars based at Hong Kong: Global perspectives on quality in higher education and Globalization and education: The quest for quality education in Hong Kong.

The two books are very different, yet complementary to each other. Global perspectives on quality in higher education focuses on higher education quality assurance. It deals with the issue by looking at various aspects of quality, quality assurance and quality maintenance in a range of countries--Africa (chapter 10 on South Africa), Asia (chapters 2 and 3 respectively on Hong Kong and China mainland), Europe (chapters 4, 5 and 6 respectively on the European Union, the United Kingdom and Denmark), North and South Americas (chapters 7 and 8 respectively on the United States and Chile), and Oceania (chapter 9 on Australia). Among them, some countries have been at the forefront of the quality movement; others are only just now working through what system of quality evaluation should be employed. They cover a wide variety of political ideologies, political histories of stability and recent rapid change, different stages of economic development and hugely different population sizes (p. 9).

In contrast, Globalization and education is set out in a wider policy context to examine and reflect critically upon the origin, evolution and development of the quality movement in Hong Kong. It provides conceptual and historical contexts (chapters 1 and 2), concepts of quality in education (chapters 3, 4 and 5), reform movement at different levels (chapters 6, 7, 8 and 9) and reflections on the managerialism and market philosophy underpinning the current drive for quality (chapters 10 and 11).

Much has been said about the reasons for the current quality movement. However the concern with quality in education is not at all new. It is articulated primarily because a larger proportion of the population is now touched by education, as students, parents, employers and teachers, particularly in higher education. The transition of higher education from elite and exclusive to mass and inclusive provision has transformed its relationship with the society that it serves. At the same time, as shown by both books, public funds become scarcer, partly as the result of the ideological move to smaller government and the user-pays principle, and partly as the result of the greater demand for funds from other government departments.

When it comes to quality in education, the list of questions would certainly be endless. One fundamental question is about the meaning of quality education and, therefore, what has been ignored in the present hubbub of quality movement. Both books indicate clearly that there is no overall consensus on quality in education although, as Dunkerley and Wong state at the very beginning of their book (p. 1), 'global' and 'quality' are two of the most widely used words in contemporary academic and lay discourse. It is well worth mentioning that in Chapters 3 and 5 of Globalization and education, Cheng explores different models of quality in education and Wong enlighteningly argues how quality in education could be understood differently in Chinese societies.

As reported in both books, what has been assessed is often, if not always, the hard part of education (to be more accurate, training), usually the skills required at the workplace to earn and make money. The soft part including attitudes, perspectives, values and cultivation is arguably more important yet largely ignored.

Let us not forget that there is an important difference in the meaning of quality between the education and business worlds. In the production of physical goods, the meaning is clear-cut so there is no confusion in what it means in the production sector. The same degree of agreement is not present on its meaning in the provision of education where there are as many definitions of it as there are stakeholders. This has led to some widely circulated reports on higher education assessment without a definition because quality is seen as dependent largely on specific national circumstances.

It is interesting and even ironic to observe that, with such a shortage of agreement on quality, strategies for quality assurance are surprisingly similar and borrowed frequently without much modification. In fact, the term 'quality assurance' refers to all the policies and processes directed to ensuring the maintenance and enhancement of quality. The concept of quality and the concern for ensuring and enhancing it was developed in the business sector in the west, where commercial success depends on it. The need to maximize profit in a competitive environment requires that costs are reduced and sales increased. An important way to increase sales is to have a product or service that is in demand and of high quality at an affordable price.

Here comes the second question: how effective is the current practice of quality assurance? Is it 'old wine in a new bottle' as the chapter on Denmark puts it (p. 78)? It is not universally accepted that the adoption of quality assurance has produced the desired effect. Whereas there are those who argue that the net effect has been positive, there are those who point out that quality assurance is a passing fad which has produced no substantial and lasting effect. It is more concerned with process than results. Its data and bureaucratic requirements, together with unnecessarily obtrusive government intervention, have diverted institutions from their activities. The effective operation of the traditional academic committee system would have produced equally good results, with much lower costs.

Even if it is agreed that quality assurance has improved the quality of higher education in developed countries, questions can be raised about its usefulness in developing countries. The specific concerns are whether its aims are relevant to the higher education needs of developing countries, whether it is realistic in its expectations and requirements, and furthermore whether it is possible to leave the quality of education to be determined solely by market forces.

With a clear move in recent years towards harmonization of both systems and practices in the area of quality assurance, the question remains whether it is possible to identify global patterns or whether the local conditions and interests prevail (p. 4). This does come back to the question of whether a homogenizing process is at work. Whether this is just another example of 'cultural imperialism' or a McDonaldisation of quality assurance is a moot point. Is it now possible to think of the McDonaldisation of quality assurance in higher education? Have western models been imposed on the local situation, creating a kind of borderless and seamless world of quality assurance subject to a form of 21st century imperialist hegemony?

The contribution of the books is to raise a number of enlightening, important questions rather than to answer them. Due to their related yet different foci, I recommend the two books be read together.

Rui Yang

Monash University
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Title Annotation:Globalization and education: The quest for quality education in Hong Kong
Author:Yang, Rui
Publication:Australian Journal of Education
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 2003
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