Academic Risk, Standards and Benchmarking
The concept of ‘academic risk’, and its management, has entered the quality lexicon and a definition of ‘academic risk’ has been advanced by Australian Universities Quality Agency (AUQA), viz. academic risk is ‘the chance of something happening that will have an impact on the achievement of academic objectives’.
AUQA has developed a Framework for Risk Assessment (at Appendix D of the AUQA Audit Manual). The generic framework identifies indicative risks for the broad areas of academic activity such as learning and teaching and research. AUQA and good practice require that each institution has its own risk assessment framework, specific to its context and that addresses risks and mitigating strategies. Some examples of academic risk that have been cited by AUQA are:
|1.||Curriculum is not up to date|
|2.||Assessment tasks do not measure relevant learning|
|3.||Inconsistent levels of quality and academic standards across campuses and locations|
|4.||Provision of inadequate levels of support and service for teachers and students offshore|
|5.||New course proposals driven by opportunity rather than strategic direction|
|6.||Lack of professional development for sessional staff|
|7.||Inadequate space for research students to permit academic interaction|
|8.||Greater attention to administration and facilities than to teaching capacity|
|9.||Competition for students – university’s distinctive features (‘brand’)|
AUQA has a clear focus on both ‘academic standards’ and ‘external benchmarking’ of institutional outcomes and has defined a standard as “an agreed specification or other criterion used as a rule, guideline, or definition of a level of performance or achievement. …… . The specification and use of standards helps to increase the reliability and the effectiveness of an application or service, and also assists in its evaluation or measurement”.
Good practice and AUQA require that we are able to explain:
- how we set standards;
- whether we have appropriate policies and processes in place;
- how we monitor the processes through appropriate (qualitative and quantitative) outcome measures; and
- what standards we achieve.
AUQA has developed a generic Framework for Standards, Evidence and Outcomes (at Appendix E of the AUQA Audit Manual) to assist institutions in this process.
The University Strategy 2007-2011 has as its primary aim the improvement of learning and teaching and research in the context of its mission to be a national university for the professions. The implementation of this strategy has seen a number of continuous improvements in learning and teaching, research and professional engagement. Clarity around the standards CSU wants and must achieve in order to succeed in its primary goal are currently being defined within the University. These standards are based on CSU’s distinctive mission. They represent what CSU as a university wants to be in order to serve its communities, inland, professional, scholarly and international.
How we set and monitor standards varies according to the regulation area. Most regulations have standards included (amount and types of credit allowed, standards of assessment, standards for determining eligibility for admission, etc.). It is also important to recognise that the major sub-committees of Academic Senate (Academic Programs Committee, Learning and Teaching Committee, Research Management Committee, Board of Graduate Studies, Faculty Boards and Assessment Committees) also evaluate the matters before them according to standards explicit in the regulations and also using some more implied standards.
It is with external comparison and benchmarking where CSU and all Australian institutions were deemed to be lacking by AUQA Cycle 1. Australia does not have the tradition of benchmarking that has occurred in the UK. There are reasons for this but lack of funding provision and, historically, distance between institutions have been issues. Nevertheless, we do benchmark against legislation such as AQF and various guidelines. These provide external reference points that preclude a culture that is not venturing beyond its own environment. In relation to benchmarking we share the concerns expressed by Stella and Woodhouse that many of the statements by Australian universities about their benchmarking strategies “are aspirational, ad hoc and very new. A clear picture of why institutions have initiated certain benchmarking strategies does not emerge. Many initiatives seem to have an emphasis on demonstrating reputation rather than learning and improving from those initiatives. …… The audit reports comment that many benchmarking activities appear not to extend beyond quoting performance indicators, in particular, without any interpretation and adaptation. Aside from monitoring of CEQ, GDS and Rodski data, some universities make very little use of external points of reference in monitoring their performance and there is a lack of qualitative monitoring in some areas.”
It appears that benchmarking is now a part of the higher education landscape for, as expressed by Stella and Woodhouse “when benchmarking is carefully used to help institutions improve their processes and systems in order to better achieve their educational mission, institutions are equipped to defend against external goals and standards that could be dysfunctional and even destructive to an institution. Acknowledging this point of view, this analysis considers benchmarking as one of the tools for demonstrating achievement of appropriate standards against external reference points and for making further improvements.”
A number of universities within Australia have now adopted some version of the typology of Stella and Woodhouse (A Stella & D Woodhouse Benchmarking in Australian Higher Education A Thematic Analysis of AUQA Audit Reports Oct 2007 ) that incorporates:
- sector benchmarking, in which a benchmarking partner(s) in the same sector is selected and the comparison extends to information known only within the organisations; the benchmarking may be ‘whole-of-organisation’ or focus on some function or aspect
- generic benchmarking, which involves comparisons of processes and practices regardless of the industry or field of the partner (e.g. comparing the processes for turning round assignments for distance education students with an analogous process in a totally different industry)
- best practice benchmarking, where the interested party selects a comparator believed to be best in the area to be benchmarked.