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Recent trends in higher education assessment systems in Europe

Autor: Alberto Amaral +

pages: 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 | pdf | next article »

In the case of higher education, the use of quasi-markets is further justified by the fact that the students are considered “immature clients” (Dill, 1997). Dill believes that in general the students do not have enough information about the quality of the institutions and their courses to make reasoned choices (1997, p. 180). According to Dill, to make a rational economic choice, the students should know the prospective future gains (salaries) linked to the different courses and not the results of the “assessment by peers of the teaching processes, or subjective judgements about the quality of a curriculum” (1997, p. 180). However, Dill says that even if this information existed a lot of students would not use it, which brings into question the principle of making a rational economic choice. This is what Dill labels the problem of the immature client. This question is clarified by Vossensteyn and Jong:

Because potential students are uncertain about the actual contents of the study, getting a degree and finding a suitable job after graduation, the decision to attend higher education and to select a particular programme is surrounded by a lot of uncertainty... psychological phenomena form a ‘filter’ or a mental framework through which students judge financial incentives in relation to their study choices (Vossensteyn & Jong 2005, p. 226).


The quasi-markets and the principal-agent dilemma

The governmental agencies that purchase on behalf of the end users are faced with the so-called principal-agent dilemma: “how can the principal [the government] best motivate the agent [the university] to act in accordance with the desires of the principal, taking into account the difficulties in monitoring the activities of the agent” (Sappington, 1991, p. 45, cited in Dill & Soo, 2004, p. 58). The monitoring difficulty is closely linked to the asymmetrical information problem, i.e. the agent knows much better than the principal what it is doing, which is the root of a lot of problems that the “neo-liberal” State faces when delegating the production of goods and services(5).

According to Kassim and Menon:

In place of the neo-classical theories of perfect competition, where information is freely available, and the firm, centred on the actions of a hypothetical entrepreneur, the new economics proceeded on the assumption that information is imperfect and used the concept of transactions costs to capture the efforts expended by market actors, previously assumed to be costless (Moe, 1984, p. 740, cited by Kassim & Menon, 2002, p. 1)(6).

Also according to Kassim and Menon:

Agency relationships are created one party, the principal, enters into a contractual agreement with a second party, the agent, and delegates to the latter responsibility for carrying out a function or a set of tasks on the principal’s behalf. (...) the principal can be any individual or organization that delegates responsibility to another in order to economise on transactions costs, pursue goals that would otherwise be too costly or to secure expertise (Kassim & Menon, 2002, p. 2).

The principal-agent dilemma creates interesting problems of public regulation and has led the State to turn to a set of control mechanisms, among which are quality assessment systems, now as submission mechanisms, the use of a huge array of performance indicators and the use of performance based contracts.

The neo-liberal contradiction and the regulation mechanisms

The neo-liberal textbook states that the State should reduce its activity as a provider of services and reduce its intervention in favour of market regulation, reasoning that competition among the service providers, public and private, will translate into better efficiency and more attention paid to the needs and requests of clients (Amaral & Magalhães, 2007). In order for the institutions to compete in a market they have to be granted a minimum amount of autonomy (Jongbloed, 2004Teixeira, Rosa & Amaral, 2004) to manage their daily affairs and to take the decisions needed to rapidly adapt to a competitive environment. However, the institutions that are granted autonomy, which are then placed in a competitive market, may pursue strategies aimed at “institutional benefits”, which may not coincide with the “public good” or with the governmental goals. This in turn leads the government to intervene to force the institutions to act to comply with the government goals. This is, in essence, the neo-liberal contradiction: on the one hand, the virtues of the market and non-state interference are championed, but the State ends up being forced to intervene in determined fashion so that its aims are achieved. This is also another way to look at the principal-agent dilemma.

Bill Massy, who devised the economic theory of non-profit organisations, argued that there was a danger from “(...) the way institutions currently respond to markets and seek internal efficiencies, left unchecked, is unlikely to serve the public good” (Massy, 2004, p. 28). This danger increased substantially if there was excessive competition or if the public funding diminished. What Massy showed with the economic theory of non-profit organisations was that, when these institutions found it increasingly difficult to spend their resources on non-profit activities connected to their defined mission, then the non-profit institutions behaved like for-profit institutions, ignoring the public good inherent to their missions and the obligations of their condition as publicly funded institutions. This lead the State to intervene, by adjusting the rules of the market to insure fulfilment of its political goals.

About the Author:

Alberto Amaral (tp.pu.sepic@laramaaREVERSETHIS) - CV

University of Porto | Portugal

Also Director of the Higher Education Policy Research Centre (CIPES)

And President of Administration Council of the Higher Education Accreditation and Assessment Agency (A3ES)

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How to refer to this article:

Amaral, Alberto (1970). Recent trends in higher education assessment systems in Europe. Sísifo. Educational Sciences Journal, , pp. 45-56. Retrieved [month, year] from http://sisifo.fpce.ul.pt