23 February 2021

Global pandemic: What about quality?

By Jefferson Sim Poh Thong

Phew! Reflecting back, what a year it has been. It was definitely not the year we visualised back in school years or when we were younger. When Vision 2020 was envisioned by the then Prime Minister of Malaysia, Tun Dr Mahathir, I’m sure we all had the image of scenes from a sci-fi movie with flying cars.

But instead, we were hit by unprecedented challenges and faced with ongoing uncertainties. We were tested by a pandemic which caused a worldwide lockdown and many industries were badly affected. The higher education industry, although not as severely affected as the airline industry, has since then been limited by closed cross-country borders and physical distancing requirement where students were forced to leave the campus or their host country.

Through the new normal, as no face-to-face interactions were allowed, we found ourselves being agile and were unlearning and relearning communication. The most obvious step was definitely to go digital. Although not something entirely new to us, but going fully digital and virtual can be quite a challenge due to the absence of physical contact.

For higher education, three areas faced with challenges and required to be done remotely are learning and teaching, assessment, and accreditation. Traditionally, accreditation process having always been conducted in a physical setting involves various stakeholders to assess and assure the quality of courses offered.

Quality assurance personnel were forced to address the most obvious question – going digital, how do we assure quality in the shift? Around the world, activities might stop but time does not. Students must graduate, courses must be accredited, and qualifications must be recognised. As the old English saying goes, ‘The show must go on’, quality assurance personnel were pushed to innovate alternative ways to conduct accreditation audits while complying with various pandemic guidelines outlined by regulators.

Many scholars posited that accreditation is about an activity conducted to determine the excellence and effectiveness of a particular curriculum. During this challenging time, the focus has been on being reflective rather than intended outcome. Being reflective to ensure that the best practices are often taken and reviewed for continuous quality improvement from time to time.

As a self–accrediting university, a status granted by the Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA) to universities with a confirmed robust internal quality assurance system, Swinburne Sarawak, even during the pandemic, ensures that all courses are accredited based on the Malaysian Qualifications Framework (MQF) and relevant standards, as well as policies of MQA and the Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE).

Through its Policy, Planning and Quality unit, Swinburne Sarawak constantly innovates to continuously improve the accreditation audits effectiveness and efficiency. In 2020, despite the pandemic, three courses successfully went through accreditation audits via the hybrid audit method – with interview sessions of the selected stakeholder groups conducted virtually. The hybrid accreditation audits comprising physical or face-to-face sessions were conducted in full compliance with Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) issued by the Sarawak State Disaster Management Committee (SDMC) and the Malaysia National Security Council (MKN).

The hybrid accreditation audits conducted follows the same process and procedures undertaken by the traditional accreditation audit. The same amount of external panel of assessors joined the virtual session via Microsoft Teams to ensure that the right experts were included to assess the courses. Not only that, the same internal and external stakeholders were also involved in the virtual session to maintain and sustain the quality of the courses offered.

Although done virtually or remotely, the depth of the reports, impact and further improvement of quality were maintained as how it would have been done traditionally. The reports and supporting documentations were deposited in cloud storage to ensure comprehensive review can be done by the panel of assessors.

In addition, at the beginning of the pandemic, for professionally accredited courses, professional bodies were quick to respond by publishing guidelines, and proposing alternative assessments and guidelines to supplement certain academic activities or requirements such as internship and laboratory work to ensure that learning outcomes and objectives can still be achieved.

As an Australian branch campus operating in Malaysia, Swinburne Sarawak is also complying with the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) standards as well as the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF). This is to ensure that quality is met at the global level.

Lastly, the mediating factors of education quality are the satisfaction of students, teachers, parents, administrators, the authorities or regulators, the management team, and alumni. Without a doubt, Swinburne Sarawak is maintaining the required quality standards by adopting best practices to include all stakeholders and ensure their feedback are considered for further improvements.

To conclude, despite all the changes and alternatives adopted during the pandemic, it can be said that the number one priority is to assure that the intended learning outcomes and quality are never compromised.

Jefferson Sim Poh Thong is an executive with the Policy, Planning and Quality Unit at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. He can be reached via email at ptsim@swinburne.edu.my.