Quality Assurance (QA) refers to practices whereby academic standards are maintained and improved. QA in higher education aims at developing a quality culture within an institution, so that the actions of its staff and students are inspired by a desire to continuously improve their practice, learning experience and outcomes. Quality Assurance is not about the ‘ticking of boxes’ simply to make sure that the appropriate procedures or processes are in place. It is about fostering an academic community of reflective practice that engages, both internally and externally, in an ongoing cycle of quality as an integral component of its striving for excellence in teaching, learning, research and outreach.
It is important to distinguish between three key terms: Quality Control, Quality Assurance, and Quality Audit. Quality control tends to deal with the quality of finished outcomes by the detection of defects. Quality assurance tends to deal with the quality of processes to ensure the quality of the outcomes. Quality audits are systematic investigations of a specific area of operations. There are three types of audits: (i) those carried out internally by the University; (ii) external reviews commissioned by the University as part of its own internal quality assurance procedures, and (iii) external quality audits carried out by the National Commission for Further and Higher Education (NCFHE).
Internal quality audit is one of the tools of internal quality assurance, or IQA, and complements quality control measures.
The emergence of quality assurance in education discourse at all levels of provision in Malta stems from the Education (Amendments) Act of 2006 [PDF] . The Act re-founded the University of Malta and for the first time included in its remit the establishment of academic audit and quality assurance schemes (Art. 72(g)). The Minister was also empowered to establish benchmarks and standards, including internal quality assurance and external auditing processes (Art. 135(i)). In 2012 the NCFHE was established to act as the national accreditation and quality assurance agency, according to regulations set out in Subsidiary Legislation 327.433 [PDF] .
The endeavours of the University of Malta with respect to quality assurance predated the 2006 Education Act. It has had a long history of using external examiners to ensure appropriate standards in its undergraduate and post-graduate awards.
The University was one of the founding universities of the Magna Charta Universitatum that was signed on the 18th September 1988 by over 388 universities in Piazza Maggiore in Bologna, and up to now has been signed by 802 universities from 85 countries around the world. The Carta Magna enshrined the principles of academic freedom and institutional autonomy as a guideline for good governance and self-understanding of universities in the future. It was the foundation for what as from 2000 would become the Bologna Process, and the conceptual underpinning of the European Standards and Guidelines [PDF] .
The University set up its first Quality Assurance Committee in 1996, which was responsible for the University’s first Internal Academic Audit across faculties in 2005. In 2007 the University revamped its quality assurance systems by setting up the Programme Validation Committee (PVC) and its administrative arm, the Academic Programmes Quality and Resources Unit (APQRU). In 2014 the Periodic Programme Review (PPR) mechanism was launched.
In 2015 the University reconstituted the Quality Assurance Committee (QAC) with a new remit, and the Quality Support Unit was set up to support the work of the QAC.
Quality assurance needs to be distinguished from inspection. In the context of Maltese educational development, the shift of discourse from inspection to quality assurance is an important one. From its establishment, the University of Malta had an internal inspection function vested in its Rector and the Chancellor or Protector of the University. Throughout the British colonial period especially during the 19th century this internal inspection function was strengthened, with the Rector given the power to inspect lectures and lecturers. The University was also subject to regular external inspections including by a number of Royal Commissions, which brought about significant changes in the structure of the University and its relationship with the state.
The turn of the 20th century saw an increase in the status and international recognition of the University. Its degrees started to be recognized by UK universities and professional bodies, and in 1937 it was granted the title of Royal University of Malta. This increase in recognition, coupled with the transformation of the relationship between Malta and the United Kingdom in the aftermath of the Second World War, led to increased autonomy for the University and a move from external inspection to internal academic self-regulation.
The introduction of a quality assurance perspective in the 2006 Education Act is tied to developments in the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) that was set up with the Bologna Declaration [PDF] of 1999. Malta is one of the founder members of the EHEA. The purpose of the Bologna Process is to strengthen the competitiveness and attractiveness of European higher education and to foster student mobility and employability through a number of tools and mechanisms. Quality assurance has played an important role from the outset in the Bologna Process, and led to the development of the European Standards and Guidelines (ESG) [PDF] for the fostering of internal and external quality assurance in higher education institutions. The ESG have been adapted to the Maltese context and incorporated in the National Quality Assurance Framework for Further and Higher Education [PDF] that was launched by the NCFHE in July 2015. The external quality audits conducted by the NCFHE are based on this framework.
This leaflet [PDF] published by the NCFHE provides concise information on quality assurance in Malta.
The requirement of the University to have quality assurance procedures in place and to undertake quality audit processes emanate from Subsidiary Legislation 327.43 [PDF] and the National Quality Assurance Framework for Further and Higher Education [PDF] The University is required: