Managing a vocational education organisation: Part Five – Quality in vocational education



Intellectual Property of Dr. Bruce D. Watson, DEd Melbourne and attributed authors as noted.

For Private individual use. All rights reserved.


In manufacturing, quality is a measure of excellence or a state of being free from defects, deficiencies and significant variations. It is brought about by strict and consistent commitment to certain standards that achieve uniformity of a product in order to satisfy specific customer or user requirements.

However, quality is also:

1. an essential or distinctive characteristic, property, or attribute

2. character or nature, as belonging to or distinguishing a thing

3. character with respect to fineness, or grade of excellence

4. high grade; superiority; excellence:

5. a personality or character trait: kindness is one of her many good qualities.

6. native excellence or superiority.

7. an accomplishment or attainment. []

Only when there is some consistency, and some agreement about conceptions of quality in VET, can we expect quality assurance mechanisms to be truly effective.


Guided reading and extract from report for OECD: “Vocational Education and Training: Issues for a Thematic Review”, W. Norton Grubb, University of California, Berkeley, CA U.S.A []


VET under scrutiny

In many countries, the quality of VET has come under scrutiny, and various quality assurance mechanisms have been developed to enhance quality. Countries belonging to the European Union have gone one step further in beginning to develop EU-wide systems of accreditation, as part of an overall approach to unifying education in EU.

It’s therefore worth determining what countries are now doing to define and improve the quality of VET. OECD has already developed an excellent paper conceptualising quality assurance (Kis, 2005), and a thematic review can draw on this framework. In particular there are at least five issues that should be included in any effort to understand quality improvement.

How do different stakeholders and different countries conceive of quality?

First, there is an obvious but exceedingly difficult question: how do different stakeholders and different countries conceive of quality? In a recent review of tertiary education in Korea, for example, there proved to be a general consensus that the expansion of higher education had caused quality to suffer, but there were more than a dozen conceptions of quality and reasons given for why quality had suffered (OECD, 2006).

Similarly, Blom and Myers (2003) and Gibb (2003) have noted the wide variety of quality indicators specifically in VET: some of them describe inputs (expenditures per student, pupil/teacher ratios, full-time rather than part-time faculty, teacher training and staff development), some describe intermediate outcomes (persistence, graduation, the completion of qualifications), others cover labour market outcomes (placement in related occupations, earnings in the short-term and long-term), some describe procedures (planning mechanisms, contacts with employers, labour market forecasting, leadership patterns).

Without understanding how quality is defined, and how different stakeholders understand quality, it is impossible to know what quality assurance mechanisms should accomplish.”

What are the purposes of quality assurance mechanisms?

A second basic question is what the purpose of quality assurance mechanisms are. The most obvious response is that they are intended to improve quality, where quality first needs to be defined. But often quality systems are developed for purposes of accountability, to recognise which institutions or programs are strong or weak, and then to reward the strong or punish the weak (perhaps through funding, as in ORF funding).

Measures designed for accountability may not be appropriate for improvement, since they may not be detailed enough, or timely enough, or encouraging enough to lead to improvement. In quality systems driven by accountability, or in systems with punitive cultures surrounding them (as in the U.K. and the U.S.), institutions and instructors may spend more time ―gaming‖ the system than they do on improvement.

Different approaches of quality assurance

A third issue involves the different approaches of quality assurance. These include accreditation, by a recognised accrediting agency; assessments, including a variety of both quantitative and qualitative measures of quality; and audits, including fiscal audits and outside inspections. Any of these may include self-reviews; peer reviews when peers from similar institutions examine an institution or program; and external reviews. This question might also recognise the process by which quality assurance is developed; for example, a tripartite process may be more likely to generate consensus about quality, and about the mechanisms of ascertaining quality, than are the top-down systems adopted in several of the English-speaking countries, which are more likely to lead to conflict, evasion, and efforts to ―game‖ the system.

The data collected may include a wide variety of self-study reports, reports from site visits or inspections, and an enormous variety of performance indicators. Many of the other issues examined in this issues paper may affect the kinds of data collected, including the labour market outcomes examined in Section 8.2, the funding issues from Section 4, the quality of teaching from Section 5, and the mechanisms of articulation from Section 7. In many ways, then, the content of quality assurance mechanisms depends on many decisions made elsewhere about VET.

Perceived effectiveness of quality assurance mechanisms

A final question is the perceived effectiveness of quality assurance mechanisms. It’s difficult to know how to evaluate effectiveness except through perceptions, since the links between quality assurance and outcomes of any kind are so complex and indirect.”

“But posing such questions can still provide some information about whether consensus exists on effectiveness, or whether there is so much disagreement — or disagreement among different stakeholders — that no conclusion is possible.

One obvious role for country studies (and Background Reports as well) is therefore to collect information about multiple conceptions of quality in each country; about those quality assurance mechanisms and instruments that have been developed so far, and those that are being considered; and about the potentially different perceptions among various stakeholders of quality assurance.

How consistent are quality assurance mechanisms are with policies?

However, such examination should not simply develop an inventory or listing of different approaches to quality assurance, as Blom and Myers (2003) have done. If we interpret quality assurance as a mechanism for expressing and furthering the other decisions and directions in a country, then the central analytic question is how consistent quality assurance mechanisms are with these other policies.

Consistency and agreement

Only when there is some consistency, and some agreement about conceptions of quality, can we expect quality assurance mechanisms to be truly effective.


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