In this way, assessment is not something that simply happens at the end of a process, rather assessment deeply influences the process itself.
When we seek to understand what it is our higher educational institutions actually do and accomplish, and what it is we think they ought to be doing and accomplishing achieving, we need to take into account the specific nature and context of a nation’s educational needs and understand the specific nature of educational institutions in relation to the host society.
So far this kind of argument is merely repeating the arguments made in my column, ‘article Don’t Imitate: Innovate! (May 15, 2011) in this column.
However, given the complex economic, social and institutional context within which we must understand higher education, what then is the proper role of evaluation of our higher educational tertiary institutions?
This issue goes to the heart of our understanding of ideas of national independence and the desire of independent polities to form their own directions and agendas tailored to their needs and aspirations.
Higher education is a critical institutional contributor to national integrity and development. The practices that occur within higher educational institutions are critical to engaging the problem of overcoming intellectual “captivity” and generating educational objectives that are people-centred.
If how we evaluate our higher educational institutions deeply effects what is done within them, then it follows that we must pay careful attention to the tools we use to evaluate higher education.
Careful attention is necessary because what we evaluate and how we evaluate assess will have significant effects within our higher educational institutions.
Some critics have pointed out that the subjectivity involved in selecting what is evaluated can lead to significant distortions in how we understand the nature and success of our higher educational institutions.
Other critics point to the trade-offs that sometimes exist between the need to increase the volume of productivity in research based on increasing Key Performance Indicators and the quality and significance of the research in addressing people’s needs.
Still others point to the problems that accrue in competitive systems where the desire to “beat” or compete against “international benchmarks” can lead to wastage and a distortion of the universities university’s mission given its more specific goals in the context of local national development.
Critics point out that the aims and functions of universities in diverse national, cultural and social contexts differ and that the appearance of commonality across the university higher education sector worldwide often hides from view the important differences and emphasis that universities play in diverse settings. The need to understand differentiation between universities given differing national and regional agendas and interests is the key here.
Differentiation and diversity are important to a universities university’s mission in a society. There are several critical reasons for this.
For example, diversified systems provide an opportunity for students from different backgrounds to access higher education and can be a significant way to address issues of social exclusion in higher education and ensure different paths to social mobility.
In the Malaysian example, the establishment of Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) is a case in point.
Diversity and differentiation also allow higher educational institutions to focus and this can have positive effects on the economy and society. Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) and the specific role it plays in respect to science and technology is another case in point.
Finally, the role of the private higher educational institutions in meeting increasing demand and expanding access for students in Malaysia is also another example.
I am sure readers will be able to survey the Malaysian scene and add a plethora of examples and elaborations to these three examples.
Understanding that the role and mission of higher educational institutions is not all cut from the same cloth is critical for to understanding the diverse roles that such institutions organisations play in their respective societies.
It is, as I have argued previously, necessary to understand both the diverse myriad nature of the socio-economic polity’s within which higher educational institutions exist and function, as well as the diverse nature and objectives of higher educational these institutions within these socio-economic political national frameworks.
One way of analysing how we view the mission of higher educational institutions is to understand them both in terms of convergent globalising influences and demands as well as in terms light of their divergences from these influences on the basis of the particularities and peculiarities of the respective national traditions within which higher educational institutions the organisations operate.
The performance of higher educational tertiary institutions and thus therefore how we should evaluate them is determined by factors both outside of national boundaries and within them.
Let’s focus on the divergences. When we take a look at the proposition that higher education must aid in national development and growth, it seems logical in Malaysia’s case that we ought to consider this issue in light of the New Economic Model (NEM). One example of an important strategic aim of the NEM is inclusiveness.
Social inclusiveness, which is closely related to issues of social justice, equity and participation, is a key issue for economic development under the NEM. Part of the argument for this lies in the aspirations that the Malaysian people and government have to embed technological and economic development within a broader commitment to social improvement.
The plight of the bottom 40 per cent of Malaysians is not simply of significant ethical concern, it is also critical to realising the aims of the economic bottom line.
Given that higher educational institutions are critical to the development of the knowledge economy and the success of the goals of the NEM, we need to ask to what extent how we evaluate success for higher educational institutions is inclusive of indicators that evaluate assess inclusiveness.
Are the quality and quantity of university outreach programmes to the poor and marginalised measured in evaluations?
How much weight is given to this? Is emphasis put on weighting academic scholarship which has a connection to analysing and resolving the problems of inclusion?
In nations where there is a significant issue of rural poverty is the role of universities in addressing this taken into account?
Is the universities’ important role in expanding access to higher education for the poor and marginalised measured and valued?
The simple point that needs to be made in concluding this too brief discussion is that what we evaluate helps to define what our higher educational institutions do. Tying our evaluations to national priorities and understanding the distinct roles that higher educational institutions play in developing societies is a beginning in our efforts at developing an evaluation metric informed by local needs and aspirations rooted in dignity.
Recognising that what we deem important enough to evaluate in higher education will, by and large, drive what is done in higher educational tertiary institutions is a simple and fundamental point.
The question that arises from this is: to what extent our evaluative criteria is driven by the specific and particular needs of a nation in regards to higher education or other less accountable agendas?
The writer is a Lecturer in Education in Australia and author of Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), Sustainability and the Struggle for A Vital Centre in Education, Penerbit USM 2011. Email him at email@example.com
Source: The NST Home Learning Curve COMMENT: Evaluation: Context matters