In this interview we talk to Hannele Keränen, Quality Manager at the Lapland University of Applied Sciences (UAS) in Finland. Hannele has worked since 1995 in the Finnish higher education sector, and has been involved in institutional reviews both in Finland and abroad. She recently presented at the European Quality Assurance Forum (EQAF) in November 2014.
1. We met you at EQAF in Barcelona in November, at which you presented a fascinating paper about student feedback and questionnaires within the wider quality environment. How did your session go and what discussions did it generate?
The session went well and it generated interesting discussions on student engagement in quality enhancement. I was positively surprised at the overall spirit of the conference: student engagement was highlighted throughout the conference and paper sessions, and workshops provided very interesting examples of good practices.
The overall discussion around student feedback is fascinating, because it fluctuates from “absolutely necessary” to “waste of everyone’s time” extremity. The consensus discourse emphasizes the importance of measuring students’ satisfaction and perceptions of the quality of study programs. The dissensus discourse points out that feedback is rarely helpful, because formal questionnaires are designed by administrators and are therefore perceived as inappropriate for evaluating quality.
Formal student feedback system can provide important perspectives for assessing quality, but more importantly, the everyday commitment and involvement to the continuous improvement ought to be promoted. Unfortunately the rational – and quantitative – paradigms still dominate the strategies for the management of quality. These paradigms have a narrow-minded perspective of the ownership of the quality enhancement in higher education.
2. Does that mean that ownership should be as broad as possible – including lecturers, managers, administrators and students? For instance, you wrote in your paper that formal questionnaires can often lead to a situation “where one who gets to ask (and make) the questions and analyse data gets also to define what quality is.” So can questionnaires work, instead, if you build them on a dialogue with students where they help shape the questions and delivery?
The overall challenge is to understand the difference between ‘collected’ evidence on quality compared to ‘on-site’ quality enhancement. In the context of higher education ‘on-site’ enhancement means that the more one goes down from the institutionalized system level to the interface level of actual teaching and learning, the more the focus goes from accountability as the main aim of quality assurance to the actual enhancement of educational quality ‘on-site’. This approach aligns with the outcomes-based learning, in which learning and meaning is constructed by the students in the course of their learning experience and in which the role of teachers is to create, develop and manage learning environments by using a variety of resources, methods and technologies in order to deepen and enrich students’ learning.
I suppose it is quite evident, that I believe in reflexive dialogical practices in the quality enhancement of teaching and learning. However formal questionnaires are useful from the quality assurance point of view. There are good examples on how they can be helpful and for sure if students help shape the questions and delivery, they are probably more committed to answer compared to questionnaires designed, for example, by the administrative staff. We need formal student feedback systems, especially in those cases where teachers are not interested in hearing students’ voices or fail to understand the social-emotional aspect of learning. Feedback is an important tool for the growth of our students. A good question is if there is room for growth on the other side of the ‘table’ as well?
3. You also mentioned in your paper that the students’ union at your university has played a key role in conducting surveys, engaging with meetings and quality systems and so forth. What value do students’ unions bring to quality discussions in Finland? What is their relationship with institutions?
Students’ unions should have an important role in developing an open and dialogical quality culture in higher education institutes. The value of students’ unions engagement in quality enhancement directs the ownership of learning where it should be. Despite of my marketing background I am not in favour of the customer-oriented thinking in degree education which treats students as customers and not as partners. For me, treating students as customers implies that they are seen as passive receivers of “teaching” rather than active co-constructors of their learning process.
I was delighted when I heard a group of students saying that their teachers do not treat them as subordinates, but as colleagues. I hope that students’ unions promote this approach to quality discussions in Finland and not the customer-oriented thinking. In my institute we consider the student union as partner and we co-operate with them actively. The situation is more or less the same throughout the HEI system in Finland.
4. The idea of students as colleagues and active co-constructors in the classroom raises the idea of engaging students in curriculum design, which is being explored increasingly widely in Scotland. What do you think lecturers can learn from students in this area?
In many HEIs lecturers pay attention to increased managerialism – which is quite justified – and they often criticize the “top-down” management practices, but it might be useful to reflect if the practices of curriculum design are the same, i.e. “top-down” (from lecturers to students) rather than “bottom-up”. The student population in HEIs is growing in size and diversity all over Europe, which means that HEIs have to take into account different kinds of needs and prior learning experiences. Finland makes no difference in this: we have developed the dual system of higher education for the last 20 years and the amount of students has been increasing. At the same time HEIs have increased the intake of international students, which means that the student population is more heterogeneous than before. This means that the teacher-centred and “one-size-fits-for-all” approaches do not work anymore. According to the European Students’ Union (ESU) there is a clear indication that from the students’ point of view quality education is student-centred education and quality is understood as the result of active dialogue between teachers, students and the institutional learning environment. It would be only natural that this applies to curriculum design as well; engaging students in curriculum design helps lecturers to develop such curriculum, which takes into account the needs of the students especially from the learning point of view. It also provides opportunities to practice democratic dialogue between the key stakeholders of teaching and learning, which is still missing to some extent.
5. Something else rather eye-catching, at least to an outsider to the Finnish system, which you mentioned in your presentation at EQAF was that 3% of the higher education budget is allocated to institutions according to national student feedback results. What is the reasoning behind this, and what impact does it have?
Moneywise this indicator has quite an impact: 3% equals approximately 24 million euros, which is allocated to the UAS based on the results of this survey. Otherwise it remains to be seen, what the actual impact on quality is, because the financial and steering model was implemented from the beginning of 2014. I suppose the ultimate idea was to include a direct qualitative indicator into the national financing and steering model, but so far it has mainly served as an illustration of an intensive ‘numbers management’ and has developed and reproduced quality culture, which celebrates performance indicators and rituals around the handling of these. The debate over this indicator reveals the main weakness of it: at worst, it can fade out the subjectivity of the development of the teaching and learning process and promote only instrumentally biased quick fixes (such as focus on response rates rather than the actual replies) on an institutional level. One challenge related to this issue is also the differences in the quality cultures of UAS: if an institute encourages its students to be critical and voice out their complaints, it might actually score worse than other UAS.
However, the critique towards the nationwide feedback system has already fostered a reform: a new questionnaire. It was developed co-operatively with OTUS (Research Foundation for Studies and Education) and the representatives of UAS. The new questionnaire measures the quality of education from three perspectives: good practices (general), learning (subjective) and contentment to studies. Although choosing appropriate perspectives to assess quality in higher education is problematic, at least this questionnaire reveals what is appreciated in the national level. It also takes into account the outcomes-based learning and competences. The new questionnaire was implemented from the beginning of this year.
6. You were involved in an institutional review of another Finnish university in January 2015. What role do students play in reviews in Finland, and in quality discussions at the national level more generally?
The Finnish evaluation model is based on self-evaluation. Each higher education institute prepares a self-evaluation report for the review (or audit) and in many cases students are actively involved in preparing the self-evaluation.
There is always a student representative in the panel and several groups of students are interviewed during the site visit. Students’ unions representatives participate actively at the national level through different means: they attend HEI conferences and seminars, and are also members of the Finnish Education Evaluation Centre (FINEEC) evaluation council.
7. What do you think is the impact of this student engagement at the national level? Is it easy to quantify?
Quantifying impact is always challenging. Student engagement at the national level hopefully supports their engagement for the quality discussions at the institutional level. The most common narrative of students’ engagement in quality enhancement implies that also the QE/QA practices in HEIs perceive students as objects. Phrases like “…activities that students are allowed to undertake in the institutional QA processes…” or “how to include students in QA system…” or “…QA provides students with the opportunity to participate and influence…” are not aligned with the student-centred approach. In order to support the student-centred approach, students ought to be considered as equal members, not only from the teaching and learning point of view, but also from the governance point of view. Hopefully the narrative – and practices! - evolve as we see more and more students engaged in quality enhancement in all levels of the HEI system.
Thanks to Hannele for being an interviewee. To suggest a future subject for interview, please contact us.
This interview is part of a series of occasional interviews on our website with student engagement practitioners – both staff and students, and from within Scotland’s university and college sector and beyond. The interviews aim to capture the different perspectives that people have on student engagement in the quality of learning.