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Measuring Quality – Political scientists study quality management in teaching and learning at German universities

Dr. Markus Seyfried. Photo: Karla Fritze.

Dr. Markus Seyfried. Photo: Karla Fritze.

The term is difficult to grasp but is on everyone's lips: quality management at universities. There are now numerous centers, contact points, newly created work areas, and instruments in this field in Germany. But how effective is quality management? Are the many newly established structures having an effect? Political scientist Markus Seyfried addresses this question and examines how quality assurance institutions work at German universities and how they influence teaching and learning.

English-speaking universities have been focusing on quality management at universities since the early 1980s. Though Germany is perhaps a bit late to the game, “There are now many research projects on quality management at universities,” says Seyfried, a political scientist at the University of Potsdam. The topic has long ceased being a niche issue and has been a heatedly discussed topic in Germany for about 10 years. “It has a lot of momentum,” says Seyfried, whose own project on this topic – funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research – explores the effects of quality management in teaching and learning.

The long road to quality management

Seyfried sees three pillars of internal quality management at universities: the organizational structures of quality management, the ongoing processes, and the personnel involved. The researchers from the University of Potsdam are investigating the first two pillars; the third is being investigated by the partners at the Helmut Schmidt University of Hamburg.

The researchers first identified universities that already have quality management, 23 of which were selected for a more detailed analysis. This started with 90-minute interviews with the central quality management department and the vice president of the respective university. Who is actually involved in quality management? How has quality management developed at the university? What is specifically being done to promote quality? Who are the driving forces, and what are their interests? The researchers asked these and other questions to collect as much information as possible on the background and activities of the quality management at each university.

 “Each interview produced about 30 pages of transcription,” explains Seyfried. The researchers categorized and coded their content and entered it into a database. “Each interview sequence has a code,” says Seyfried, describing the procedure. Creating keywords for each text passage allows the researchers to search and combine all kinds of information in the database. The interview findings served as the basis for a questionnaire, which the researchers developed in a second step, also integrating current quality management theory.

Numerous points of criticism

Diligent work had to be done before the researchers could use the questionnaire to collect additional data. Since there was no list of quality management personnel at German universities, they had to collect these data themselves – through internet research. The researchers ultimately identified over 600 people, whom they sent the questionnaire. They asked, for example, about the reasons for using quality management, its perceived effectiveness, and the educational background of those involved.

Nearly half of the questionnaires were returned to the researchers. “This is comparatively high for an online survey,” says Seyfried. Good progress has been made in evaluating the questionnaires. The initial results show, for example, that universities introduced quality management not only to improve the quality of teaching and learning but also to convey quality, an aspect that is being explored by PhD student Moritz Ansmann. The introduction, thus, does not always spark enthusiasm. PhD student Alexa Kristin Brase is examining resistance to the introduction of a quality assurance system. The ultimate question remains “Does it all actually bring anything?” Seyfried explains.

Quality management at universities is still not a matter of course, and there are some points of criticism. It is always associated with additional bureaucracy and a greater workload for those involved. There is also the feeling that the money spent on quality management could be better invested in teaching. Solid empirical evidence is, however, still lacking.

Germany still without consequences

Seyfried explains how the general situation in Germany ought to be assessed. “At English-speaking universities, for example, evaluation results are linked to other aspects – even resulting in cuts in funding due to very poor evaluations.” In Germany, such approaches are very controversial. There have been hardly any repercussions stemming from quality management of teaching beyond serving merely a reporting function. “A lot still has to be done to maximize the potential.” The survey instruments often do not correspond to the requirements or purposes for which they were developed.

The political scientist does not think much of the ubiquitous debate over whether quality management is an independent profession. Those coming from other backgrounds, such as social, political, or administrative scientists, have primarily been the ones doing quality management. There are now freestanding courses of study in quality management, and professionally trained evaluators and quality managers will be entering university administrations in the coming years. Nevertheless, "quality management is not an independent profession in the classical sense,” the researcher clarifies. Quality assurance is a purely administrative task.

Quality development is another issue. The researcher can already derive some suggestions for effective quality management. “It is certainly useful to replace quantitative methods by qualitative ones and to introduce a culture of supervision.” Other instruments, such as sitting in on lectures or discussions with students, are more effective than countless questionnaires: “One of the most important elements is communication. An engineer would certainly understand quality management differently than a philosopher. The challenge is to reconcile and moderate the various specialized areas.”

The Project

WiQu – Impact Research on Quality Assurance of Teaching and Learning examines the work and performance of quality assurance departments at German universities.
Funding: Federal Ministry of Education and Research
Duration: 2013–2016

The Researcher

Dr. Markus Seyfried studied political science in Potsdam and earned his doctorate at the Faculty of Economics and Social Sciences in 2010. He is a scientific assistant at the Chair for Political Science, Administration, and Organization. His research interests are statistical data analysis, comparative administrative sciences, financial control, funding of public broadcasters, and academic research.

Universität Potsdam 
Wirtschafts- und Sozialwissenschaftliche Fakultät 
Karl-Marx-Str. 67 14482 Potsdam
Email: seyfried@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de

Text: Heike Kampe
Translated by: Susanne Voigt
Published online by: Agnetha Lang
Contact for the editorial office: onlineredaktion@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de