Why Quality Assurance is Important for Higher Education in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq?

Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research in Kurdistan

Quality Assurance in Higher Education in the Kurdistan region

Why Quality Assurance is Important for Higher Education in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq?
Beriwan Khailany, Advisor to the Minister
Sharon Linzey, Academic International Liaison

Raising standards of teaching and research in higher education institutions has long been a top priority for the people and government of the Kurdistan region and it remains a top priority of the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research today. With a mandate to ensure quality of education in public and private universities, the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research is charged with ensuring that all universities achieve a high level of quality, and thus secure the level of education of the populace of Kurdistan. In this sense the Ministry is reviewing every aspect of the educational system in Kurdistan and subjecting it to radical change.

Quality assurance typically means two things: (1) a system for evaluating performance, as in the delivery of services or the quality of products provided to consumers, customers, or patients; and (2) a planned and systematic pattern of all actions necessary to provide adequate confidence that the product or system optimally fulfils customers’ or clients’ expectations, i.e. that it is problem-free and well able to perform the task for which it was designed. As applied to higher education, quality assurance systems will be designed to ensure that the standards of performance match those generally-accepted in higher education. This includes performance of the institutions as well as students and graduates. Currently very little has been done in terms of establishing performance indicators for assessing the quality of institutions of higher learning.

Why must the Ministry assure and improve quality in our institutions of higher learning? The Ministry is obliged to ensure that minimal standards are achieved so that students are guaranteed a basic level of education. Although the Kurdistan region has experienced an influx of investment in oil and infrastructure, there has been a shortage of local graduates with necessary skills or training to fill the job vacancies created. “We decided to review everything for the sake of improving quality: teacher training, research and the standard of our degrees,” His Excellency Prof. Ala’Aldeen said at the Going Global Conference held in England last month.

Institutions are responsible for the quality of their programs and hence will desire to enhance the level of quality in their programs and offerings. Students want quality learning programs that will allow them the opportunity to obtain useful degrees that will assure a decent standard of living. Professionals seek to improve their performance so that they can enjoy their vocations to the maximum. Overall excellent higher education institutions are superior learning organizations.

However, there are dangers involved as institutional systems seek to improve quality in higher education processes and programs. On one hand danger arises when senior staff members talk and behave as if quality doesn’t matter. On the other hand danger arises if quality assurance specialists talk or behave as if quality is the only thing that matters.

Building a culture of quality can help to resolve both of these dangers. To build this culture everyone must take ownership of enhancing quality mechanisms and procedures in their own domains or spheres of influence. It is possible to build a culture revolving around quality where everyone expects all performance to be evaluated. One cannot expect a culture of quality to be achieved by one quality office or officer(s) only. Everyone must share the responsibility for achieving this culture of quality if it is to be achieved.

Another important point concerning the process of culture building: one cannot expect that quality, or any other characteristic to be achieved, is ‘added on’ to a pre-existing structure or culture. It must be built in. For example, instead of performing tasks by trial and error, staff must purpose to do things right the first time. They also need to aim to do things better the next time. This involves continual self-assessment.

Self-assessment is a key driver in the quality assurance program to be implemented in our universities. It is central to the process of seeking quality and improving quality. How does a university program assess itself? Each university must develop mechanisms to self-assess its programs and progress towards the goals that have been developed to correspond to the university’s strategic plans. University personnel must assess their performance against the key performance indicators on an annual basis. The respective goals and key performance indicators will correspond to the level of research, teaching and learning, and administrative levels of the person, office, or program being assessed.

What tools are used for self-assessment? Tools need not be complex, but should be clear and simple and reviewed annually. Student evaluation instruments should be monitored and reconsidered often to ensure that the questions being asked of students are tapping into the key evaluative measures that are intended to be measured.

The long term objectives of the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research are to create a comprehensive system of self-assessment and quality assurance that will lead to accreditation for the higher educational institutions and universities in Kurdistan. For this reason a team has been assembled and charged with the responsibility to supervise the processes of assuring quality control efforts. The Minister has mandated a Quality Assurance Committee for each university of not less than 3 professors under the direction of the Vice President for Scientific Research to be responsible for implementing quality assurance mechanisms for the programs and courses within the respective university.

In order to establish effective quality assurance systems in each university, the most critical need is practical training for university senior staff, quality unit staff and peer reviewers. The challenge is how to improve human capacity building in Kurdistan in a manner that can be sustained over time. There currently is no formal training available in this area. Ultimately, any capacity building initiatives should be tailored to the Kurdistan context and the training of quality assurance staff should be a continuous process.

Since most staff members possess little experience with higher education quality systems, training should focus on providing exposure to higher education processes. Such training may be obtained through attending conferences, spending time in institutions of higher learning and study visits to other quality assurance agencies. Other experts may be identified and invited as consultants to the Ministry to provide assistance in areas of writing regional accreditation standards, collecting and analyzing data, conducting self assessment, budget planning, strategic planning and benchmarking. Efforts to establish Teaching Quality Assurance (TQA) programs in higher education in Kurdistan have just begun.

In February 2010 the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research in Kurdistan began to put in place a TQA system which highlights the following:

The Vice President for Scientific Affairs is responsible for managing and supervising the TQA team and project within the respective university;
A review of all academic processes has been initiated;
A self-assessment process has been initiated in each university;
A TQA Office in the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research has been established with a full-time Director.
The Committees established in each university will monitor and supervise the quality of teaching by distributing monitoring materials for each course. These materials contain instructions on how to implement the program by each faculty member. The objective of this task is to identify problems and gaps in teaching and learning at the classroom level.

Since the Quality Assurance process is new to our region, the Committees will likely face many challenges during the implementation phase of the process due to the lack of the culture of quality assurance involving historic national standards and agencies with guidelines for teaching quality assurance processes. In sum, challenges with implementing Quality Assurance mechanisms in the Kurdistan region include the following:

Reforming the university management structure;
Lack of understanding of Quality Assurance systems and their mechanisms due to a lack of the culture of quality in higher education;
Lack of experienced faculty and staff in the fields of Quality Assurance, Self-Assessment and Accreditation;
Lack of cooperation and coordination with international higher education institutions and agencies due to an inherent insufficiency in communication including international spoken languages.
The Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research intends to overcome these challenges and difficulties. By reviewing every aspect of the educational system in Kurdistan the Ministry will subject it to radical change to bring it up to twenty-first century standards.
Who will benefit from the Ministry’s program of introducing Quality Assurance programs in the universities of Kurdistan? First of all, Kurdistan will benefit as its standard of education steadily climbs to a respectable level and maintains that level. Secondly, we will begin to fill the industrial and vocational needs that are opening up in the Kurdistan job market. Thirdly, Iraq will benefit as Kurdistan universities create basic standards for Teaching Quality Assurance for all the universities in Iraq. Educating people on the culture of quality inside and outside of the educational institutions will cause the population of Iraq to look at the educational processes differently and thus, more positively. Fourthly, each university will be able to assess their respective programs by viewing them through a new lens of quality.

Through this project the Ministry of Higher Education and the personnel in its associated universities will learn how international educational institutions work toward self-assessment, quality assurance and accreditation. Underlying all of these processes will be a thorough mechanism of accounting and auditing procedures which will be installed and be running smoothly in each university. The effects of the implementation of these deliberate policy changes and developments will bring new credibility to the university systems and will also filter down to the departmental levels, resulting in introducing accountability on the part of each manager or faculty member.