Academic benchmarking compares quality

No single higher education institution can embrace changes and turn out to be perfect in its systems and processes unless there are control mechanisms in place to ensure effectiveness and efficiency.

How does one university know that national and international excellence is achieved through its delivered programmes and courses?

Whose work is it to maintain, monitor and manage the existing policies in these higher institutions?

Of course benchmarking can be perceived as a tool to spy on one’s performance by most educators where such process is first introduced.

However, that notion far outweighs the advantages of such a powerful tool to gain competitive insight and provide evidence-based views of performance throughout product and organisation lifecycles.

This is what was said by Dr Sara Booth, a Strategic Advisor Quality at the University of Tasmania and an acknowledged expert on academic benchmarking who facilitated the National University of Samoa’s (N.U.S) first Academic Benchmarking Workshop held for three days recently.

“There were problems identified during the benchmarking process and peer review as you would come across academics who do not acknowledge issues that require changes in managerial level.”

“Follow up action is also critical as some academics still haven’t completed their reviews.  What is also difficult about this process is finding partners to benchmark with and aligning them with other higher education strategic initiatives,” Dr. Booth said.

But what really is benchmarking as this underpins the next steps for all universities and higher institutions in the Pacific region including Australia and NZ?

Australia’s Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency (T.E.Q.S.A) defines it as a structured, collaborative, learning process for comparing practices, processes or performance outcomes. Its purpose is to identify comparative strengths and weaknesses, as a basis for developing improvements in academic quality. Benchmarking can also be defined as a quality process used to evaluate performance by comparing institutional practices to sector good practice. 

In other words, identifying gaps in the system that require improvements to achieve best practices in higher education standards by comparing one university’s standard against the other so that quality education is recognised internationally.

“I know a lot of institutions in the region think resourcing is an issue but to start small to acquire best teaching practices really is an achievement.  This exercise also enables educators to think innovatively  given the use of online resources to produce best results.”

For N.U.S. it was a successful academic benchmarking workshop since the establishment of its Academic Quality Unit (A.Q.U) last year.

Successful in a lot of ways in that not only nine regional institutions attended other than New Zealand and Australia, its management and staff have improved their understanding of using benchmarking as a quality improvement tool as well as bringing the Samoa Qualifications Authority (S.Q.A) on board to be part of the discussions and to see where the university is heading in terms of quality assurance and enhancement.

Those nine institutions included N.U.S, The University of Fiji, The University of the South Pacific (U.S.P), The University of Papua New Guinea (U.P.N.G), Divine Word University (PNG), Fulton College (Fiji), AKO Aotearoa (NZ) and the University of Waikato (NZ) and University of Tasmania. 

“The inclusion of participants from other universities brought an additional dimension to the discussion, raising the level of awareness among (N.U.S.) staff of the role of internal and external quality assurance operations within a university,” A.Q.U. Director Tea Tepora Wright said.

Funded under the Education Sector Plan Budget Support (E.S.S.P.) for quality assurance, Tea felt that this has paved way for the many steps to be taken by the institutions that attended.

“Obviously the first is improved understanding by (N.U.S.) staff of the process of using benchmarking as a quality improvement tool, applied for a process such as teacher professional development, course design and approval or discipline area.”

“There were several outcomes from the workshop. Many areas for quality improvement in N.U.S operations were identified by the staff themselves.  This is critical as it raises the level of ownership among staff for on-going quality improvement at the university.”

“The final outcome, which will be discussed further, is that of a possible benchmarking project with one or more of the universities which were represented at the workshop. Areas that seemed to be of particular interest were professional development for academic staff and programme and course design.”

This outcome was also shared by the Director of the Academic Audit Division at U.P.N.G, Professor Steven Winduo.  

“What has been noted in our line of work is having too many processes that lack monitoring.  It is not one person’s job but involves management support.”

He told the workshop that there is a huge need to benchmark with other universities to identify weaknesses in university quality standards.  

“Being here at this workshop will help (U.P.N.G.) initiate quality control process and Action Plans for each university division is now underway.  To benchmark against what is taking place is a step to the right direction.”

But there is always help from advanced institutions whose academic quality units have taken off with a lot of action in place such as those shared by the Deputy Director of A.K.O. Aotearoa, Helen Lomax who co-facilitated the workshop.

As for N.U.S, the A.Q.U. will be discussing further with the university management and overseas colleagues, what the possible next steps in this area will be. This is in support of further recommendations highlighted in the 2015 Academic Audit Report conducted by the Academic Quality Agency based in N.Z.

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