External quality assessment in the context of managerialism and higher education public policy
A core aspect of higher education public policy developments in Scotland has been the external quality assessment of learning and teaching provision. Controversial in their own right, such processes were often overshadowed by conflicts regarding the policy of accountability to Government and the apparent attack on university and staff autonomy. Thus, the research is set within a context of conflicting internal and external environments. Rapidly and radically changing public policy and perspectives of state-sector and institution-department managerialism gave conflicts over external accountability policy and external quality assessment processes broader significance. The research adopted a qualitative case study methodology, incorporating thirty six semistructured interviews with key sector, institutional and departmental informants. The carefully selected informants had extensive experience of external quality assessment in Scottish universities and of sector, institutional and departmental perceptions and responses. Conclusions establish that external quality assessment has, across the Scottish university sector, had a positive catalytic influence on the enhancement or revitalisation of the institutional and departmental focus on assuring and improving the quality of learning and teaching provision, on a long-term basis. However, significant obstacles to a continued beneficial interface are evident and the need for external approaches to instil ownership of quality assurance and enhancement with subject level academics is underlined. Implications assert that continuing and principled policy conflict regarding the imposition of an externally driven change process of disputed relevance on a (semi) autonomous institution or sector will not necessarily fatally impede the process from having a beneficial catalytic impact, provided that factors internal and external to the institution combine to create an appropriate environment. Further, this can occur across a sector of similar but culturally distinct institutions. However, it is evident that processes may have only a limited impact and must evolve if there is to be a continuing benefit, as the internal and external factors that have combined to create an environment open to influence may change. Given that change processes in public and private sectors can also result in conflict between internal and external environmental factors, the implications may extend beyond the Scottish university sector and quality assessment.