V. Gynnild

NTNU - Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NORWAY)
The higher education sector has undergone significant changes over the last decades. This can largely be ascribed to the process of European integration with its emphasis of a common education market. To align education across institutions and boundaries, two important measures have been essential: The introduction of qualifications frameworks and the use of explicit learning outcomes. In Norway, a hybrid version of the European Qualifications Framework (EQF) and that of the Bologna process served as a conceptual and structural base for the reform, especially to inform explicit learning outcomes. Such descriptions were intended to mediate between various systems of provision.

In Norway, a national body (NOKUT) was mandated to monitor the progression of the process to ensure alignment with the country’s National Qualifications Framework (NQF). The current study draws on data collected by six committees appointed by NOKUT to examine 127 study programs at 32 institutions. The aim was to check whether learning outcomes were consistent with descriptors in NQF, and to identify examples of “successful” and less “successful” learning outcomes.

Research questions for this study are:
- How can the committees’ focus be explained theoretically
- What might be likely implications of their work for the higher education sector?

Only approximately 50% of learning outcomes were in accordance with level descriptors in NQF. Managerial staff headed the reform process, while academics were left in a state of confusion when having to deal with the sophisticated language related to learning outcomes. Further, some complained about inadequate professional support, while others deemed their efforts had been greater than the gains when adopting explicit learning outcomes. The implementation process emerges as a tough encounter between widely different cultures and traditions – the academic versus the managerial.

Of special interest to our study is the conception of “successful” versus less “successful” learning outcomes. It appears that the notion of “success” depends exclusively on formalities of language. There is no consideration of common meaning of learning outcomes, or any evidence of their effects. The overall impression is a technical, instrumentalist approach that seems to reflect the idea that simply stating that something should be the case makes it possible that it will be the case. Furthermore, there is no evidence that learning outcomes have reformed curricula, assessment practices or the pedagogy.

Theoretically, this study draws on New Public Management (NPM), particularly the belief that principles of leadership and management from the private sector should be used in the public sector. Leadership functions and administrative structures should be strengthened, and the notion of academic quality is redefined from “inherent” to one in which formal and measurable aspects are prominent. This way academic activity may become open to investigation by external authorities. Findings presented in the NOKUT study are theorized in light of a cultural encounter, each with their respective roots, terminology and power structures. Implications of the managerial expansion in education are discussed, notably potential future roles of academics to gain greater ownership of quality initiatives.