Student-centred quality improvement systems in manufacturing engineering higher education
Recent changes within British higher education have led to a refocus as to the purpose of such education. This movement has been particularly noticeable in the engineering disciplines. These changes have involved a move towards a more 'transformational' objective, where the emphasis is on the development of the full range of learning abilities within a student coupled with an external, or 'real world', orientation. To develop such learning abilities requires specific educational approaches that are based on student-centred processes and the preparation for lifelong learning. This new purpose, and its inherent educational methods, has implications for the type of quality improvement systems adopted. Robust approaches developed in manufacturing industries have been identified, and the thesis argues that quality systems based on developments in these industries can be used in higher education to create a culture that engenders this positive learning approach. This involves a move away from passive, quantitative quality monitoring systems that focus on the 'product' of learning, and move towards more qualitative, active and dynamic department-wide quality improvement systems that focus on the developmental 'process'. Traditional methods of addressing quality in higher education departments can be seen to focus on rudimentary control mechanisms, where action is post-process and reactive, and where the feedback loop often not closed, i.e. preventative and corrective actions, when identified, are not initiated. Such approaches add very little to the purpose of higher education (i.e. developing the range of 'transformational' learning abilities), as there is an overemphasis on evaluation and not enough emphasis on enhancement, development and preparation for continuous learning. The main thesis, therefore, links learning theory to quality theory, via the concepts of development cycles, lifelong learning and continuous improvement. To ascertain the validity of the theses required a research methodology that was based on an in-depth longitudinal action/applied research case study. The research involved a three and a half year study of the quality improvement systems of a manufacturing engineering department of a British university. The research introduced and investigated a strategy that would result in a move from the 'post-process/passive' student involvement to 'in-process/ active'. The case study found that the thesis was valid, in that particular students and members of staff adopted the quality improvement system (i.e. a change in observable behaviour). The contribution to knowledge involves the examination of the interaction between departmental culture and systems, where a 'cultural shift' is necessary involving (i) a change in the role of the undergraduate student (i.e. from passive members in the process, to central participants in the creation and improvement of quality), and (ii) a change in the focus of quality (i.e. from checking that learning was taken place, to promoting and preparing students for lifelong learning).