V. Gynnild

NTNU - Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NORWAY)
European higher education has undergone comprehensive changes over the last 15-20 years. This has occurred due to the demands of rapidly changing labor markets and the need for highly skilled workers in innovation and entrepreneurship. An important feature associated with higher education has been the introduction of the European Qualifications Framework (EQF) and that of the Bologna process. Both frameworks share the common features of three educational cycles (bachelor/master/doctorate) and three categories of qualifications (knowledge/skills/competence). The aim of these structures is to provide a ‘common currency’ in education to ease transitions between programs and institutions.

In the current country, the National Qualifications Framework was created as a hybrid between the aforementioned frameworks, and all higher education institutions were urged to make study programs and curricula consistent with this framework within 2012. As part of the process, a national agency for quality assurance was established as a controlling authority to monitor the quality reform, and to conduct institutional checks to see if educational provision met the agreed standards.

A significant feature of the reform was the introduction of ‘learning outcomes’ signifying a shift to a greater emphasis on learning rather than inputs, such as teaching and content. This study draws on a comprehensive study to examine the extent to which stated learning outcomes were consistent with targeted level descriptors of the National Qualifications Framework. 127 study programs were scrutinized by five committees, each consisting of academics from two countries.

This study examines the following research questions: What is the theoretical basis for the use of learning outcomes (1), and what are the characteristics of ‘successful learning outcomes’? The study draws on data provided by the five evaluation panels and analyzes these findings theoretically.

The committees’ conclusions are rather depressing since there is no example of ‘successful learning outcomes’ according to their standards. Interestingly, to be deemed ‘successful’ implied the application of wording exactly as seen in the level descriptors, while issues of academic achievement remained unaddressed. Academics were pinched in formalities of language and the ideologically based requirements of outcomes-based education to set minimum standards achievable by most students.

The analysis is informed by Outcomes-Based Education and New Public Management, and a radically different application of descriptors is suggested. Rather than being trapped in formalities of language in the numerous descriptors, the author argues in favor of focusing on the essence of the categories, as summarized in EQF. In this case, three major category descriptors can be used as a source of inspiration rather than acting as a time consuming and demotivating mental barrier.

By organizing knowledge around a wide range of discrete competencies, outcomes-based education threatens to fragment and atomize curriculum knowledge. After all, learning is not something that can be fully predicted, and stakeholders are likely to enjoy that freedom. The current study illustrates counter-productive effects of New Public Management, and provides some guidance for academics in how to handle the application of this expanding ideology of governance.