The Ocular Proof

Shakespeare’s famous words, put into the mouth of his flawed hero Othello, ring out over the years: ‘Give me the ocular proof’. Moves to evidence-based and evidence-informed judgements of ‘what works’ touch many walks of life, e.g. social services, health, education, child care and criminal justice. 

By Keith Morrison | Author and educationist

Whilst the ‘what works’ agenda is massively oversimplistic, overlooking the complexity of organizations and their work, nevertheless it signals a step forward in improving the quality of institutions, their operations and outcomes, fitness for purpose, responsiveness to clients and stakeholders, transparency and value for money. ‘Quality’ requires externality and external judgements in ensuring that institutions are up to the mark. This moves beyond selfdeclared, often over-blown claims of excellence, to having external experts adjudicating and reporting on the actual quality of institutions and their work. That can’t be a bad thing. 

A quiet movement has been taking place in Macau in recent years to raise the quality of its higher education (HE), and rightly so. This is reflected in the first new HE law for years, that came into effect in 2018, the upgrading of the former Gabinete de Apoio ao Ensino Superior to become the Direcção dos Serviços do Ensino Superior (DSES), and in the steps that the DSES has taken to install an ambitious, obligatory framework for quality assurance (QA) in HE. 

The framework has four main strands: program review; program accreditation; institutional quality audit; and institutional accreditation. A central pillar of this is the non-negotiable requirement to involve internationally recognised external experts and agencies in each strand of the framework, reporting to the DSES on the quality of the HE institutions (HEIs) and their programs. External parties can include DSES-approved accreditation and QA review agencies, professional organisations and purposely convened ad hoc panels of experts.  

Nothing new there, you might say; it’s been happening across the world for decades. And so it has; Macau is a late starter here. Macau is a tiny territory with its own minigovernment whose resident expertise in QA and accreditation are at an early stage. Further, some people in other parts of the world won’t have heard of Macau or even know where it is, so there would be little or no point in having Macau award its own accreditation, taking on the role of an accreditation agency, as accreditation is about external recognition and reputation. Who, outside Macau, would care a fig whether the DSES has accredited its HEIs and their programs? So, given Macau’s present situation, requiring the involvement of internationally recognised external expert parties in judging the quality of its HEIs and their programs is to be applauded. No longer can HEIs in Macau get away with selfproclaimed excellence that is based on scant evidence and notices in the local press that make much out of incredibly mundane and modest matters.  

The seal on the DSES’s framework was set in February 2019, when the DSES’s new Quality Evaluation Panel was introduced to representatives of Macau’s HEIs. The panel comprises QA and accreditation experts from across the world. Inter alia, they advise the DSES on QA and accreditation. Recruiting such experts is a conspicuous DSES achievement. It also presents challenges. 

One can speculate how differences in values, agendas, cultures, backgrounds, experiences between members of the Quality Evaluation Panel will be reconciled in the advice that they provide to the DSES. Further, in the DSES’s important and impressive innovation in judging quality in HEIs, to serve transparency and evidence in addressing ‘what works’, Shakespeare’s ‘ocular proof’, public accountability for spending tax payers’ money on this project, and moves to have external parties involved, one can return a ‘tu quoque’ to ask the DSES: (a) how the work of the Quality Evaluation Panel will be externally evaluated; (b) how the DSES’s framework for QA will be externally evaluated; (c) how the results of such evaluations will be made public; and (d) how far this DSES project has raised the quality of HE in Macau. 

The same goes for all Macau’s government departments; external expert judgements trump internal self-proclamation. It is risky simply to trust government departments to evaluate themselves; objectivity, externality and independence must prevail.