Q in LLL Materials Quality Lifecycle  



Universities occupy a special position in European higher education systems. They are at the same time the final stage of an educational process demanding the development of very high-level knowledge and skills, a hotbed for research and the development of new knowledge and a centre for the training and accreditation of the practising professionals of the future. This profusion of missions also constitutes a major challenge and may be problematic, for there are no simple connections between the research function and the requirements of preparation for work and universities often find themselves exposed to criticism and reproach.

Yet for several decades now, the university has ceased to be the meeting place solely for academic teaching staff and young students. The mature student population is an increasingly significant feature of university life. These students may be fully integrated undergraduate students, with or without "traditional" entrance qualifications (depending on the regulations), or students returning for post-graduate studies after graduate training and several years of professional practice, or those taking part as professionals (or citizens) in continuing education programmes. Quite clearly, universities need to adapt for there is every reason to encourage the growth of this so-called "special client group".

Against this background, continuing education acts as an important agent for change by introducing innovations within higher education. Undertaking a quality project depends on the commitment of those responsible for the creation of a structure and the justification of a project pregnant with consequences for the institution. Henceforth, quality is neither a fashion nor an institutional characteristic, but a genuine research tool which has real impact and usefulness. The official purpose of the work is to adapt higher education to new challenges in its environment and to new users; the chosen strategy is the concept of Quality. Each university will therefore devise its own project as a result of its own social character, taking into account its history and culture, of its available resources and strategic choices.

It follows that university education must take a variety of directions if it is to accommodate the special needs of users of continuing education:

Advanced professional updating: designed for former university graduates, this approach responds to the requirements of lifelong learning, that is to say the updating of continuously changing knowledge. In this scheme of things, adults return to university after a first pre-graduate stage as ?traditional? students. It also includes people with professional qualifications who need to consolidate and develop their current skills. This constitutes recourse to the university in the context of professional development.

The acquisition of new knowledge and skills: designed both for graduates and for those with professional qualifications, this approach meets the need for reorientation at a particular time in a person's professional and/or personal life. It may occur when someone needs knowledge and skills in a hitherto unknown field as a result of professional promotion, technological development or even a hiatus in his/her career. In this context, it is increasingly common to see adults embarking on a long-term course of university studies. They are thus consumers of undergraduate education and training which for them represents a change of direction in their career and thus continuing personal or professional development.

A second chance: designed for adults who earlier in life chose not to, or did not have the opportunity to, pursue a university education (and who may or may not have been qualified to enter), who for reasons of professional or personal development are later induced to reconsider. There is thus a second chance to go to university, either as an ordinary student while continuing in employment, or as a participant of a continuing education programme. This latter often facilitates entry to an academic environment that, especially for people who have had no previous contact with a university, may seem hostile and accessible only with difficulty. Moreover, thanks to innovative continuing education programmes, the emergence of alternative qualifying routes and the Accreditation of Prior (Experiential) Learning (AP(E)L), it is gradually becoming possible for adults with or without traditional qualifications to access the university world.

There are important issues and challenges arising from this growing number of adults going to university. Below we pinpoint four of these issues which constitute the outline of a preliminary approach to the question of "quality".


If the university is considered to be a place dedicated to research, to the production of knowledge and to traditional teaching, the question of relevance does not really arise. If, on the other hand, the academic model of the university is expanded to embrace people other than the traditional student, then the didactic model concerned with the transmission of theoretical knowledge is called into question and relevance becomes highly significant. The influx of mature students, often with experience leading them to look for ways of applying knowledge, tends to disturb the embedded academic organisation and attitudes. The challenge of relevance is in all probability the most important of all the issues to be addressed, as it encompasses questions of organisation, course structure, teaching methods and, more generally, the relations between the university and the outside world. Several "quality" procedures act as vehicles for a progressive transformation in the field of relevance.


In everyday life, professional and social problems do not present themselves in fragmented and unconnected ways. The distinction between disciplinary fields, which provides the rationale for university departments and graduate schools, is ill-suited to the holistic and complex understandings introduced by individuals who spend most of their time in a company, an institution, manufacturing or a service sector and only part of their time in the university (although demand for discipline-based work remains heavy in such areas as basic research or the sciences). University continuing education has resulted in the blossoming of genuinely interdisciplinary programmes linking several university departments, addressing modern or historical problems from several complementary and practical angles to attain professional competence. This co-operation between different disciplines imposes several conditions if an adequate level of quality is to be guaranteed. It is not merely a question of lining up a team of teachers from different departments; if it is to mean anything, interdisciplinarity involves the opening up of the university to fields of practice which are different from its own. In the process it tests its ability to deal and negotiate with companies and to provide an organisational structure facilitating the production of relevant, valid and consistent programmes. It also implies sharing the physical teaching area between academics and the representatives of professional sectors: the lecture hall and the classroom are no longer closed territory.


At university level, the academic model is reflected not only in teaching methods, but in organisational detail, timetables, study plans, and course structure. The advent of part-time students requires a drastic overhaul of administrative and teaching organisation, involving modularisation, evening courses, individualised studies, credit accumulation, AP(E)L and so on. The reality of studying alongside working life requires adaptations that can also benefit full-time students. With the arrival of new technologies and distance learning, work-based learning is delivered through new techniques for disseminating knowledge. Learning is no longer strictly tied to the teaching site, and the pattern and timing of learning are increasingly differentiated. For their part, universities must accept that they no longer exercise total control over the adult student's output, since case studies and project management involve outside bodies. Knowledge is thus situated halfway between the university and the outside entity and is characterised by a continuous endeavour to transform acquired knowledge into practice.


As with all university studies, continuing education needs to validate its programmes through certificates or qualifications testifying to the work accomplished by the participant. Here again, the issues are both vast and multi-dimensional. Historically, certification has chiefly meant the award of diplomas and certificates at the end of a period of study. Against the background of an increasingly demanding professional environment confronted with a flood of qualifications emanating from the training market, the mere mention of a university is no longer enough to guarantee that a qualification will be recognised at professional level. In addition to the actual issuing of certificates, the university needs to promote the qualification with professional bodies for the benefit of the qualification-holders themselves and for those who have invested in the training.

The recognition that skills and knowledge acquired at work have an "exchange value" in the context of a modular programme and that previously acquired competences can be accredited as part of the qualification is a further aspect of the work of validation of professional development aimed at the institution's external economic and social partners. The programme no longer proceeds in a linear fashion, but is constructed around real needs and the accreditation of prior learning.

There is now general recognition of the consequences of the arrival (or return) of mature students at university, just as there is an awareness of the need to adapt to this phenomenon. However, these adaptations cannot be put in place without the active participation of certain groups within the institution:

  • An academic unit or department with specific responsibility for these issues. The mission of such a unit includes the development of ideas, logistical support and services to "clients" such as participating adults, companies, and other bodies. Bearing in mind the conditions listed above, it goes without saying that the teaching component itself remains the responsibility of the teaching staff.
  • An official policy resolutely geared to this new dimension. Depending on national systems this may be at the level equivalent to a university rector, president or vice-chancellor, a regional authority, or the Education Ministry.
  • At the institutional level, an advisory body on which university management, adult education specialists, teachers in continuing education and external partners are represented.


The concept of quality increasingly shapes the structural elements of higher education quite as much as the educational process itself. In the field of adult continuing education where there is a need to integrate particular client groups, the quality process must focus primarily on three key areas:

  • At entry - the planning of an individual learning plan or project training project taking into account the individual's needs, the appropriateness of the methods and the resources available
  • During the programme - the co-operative nature of adult learning
  • At completion - the outcomes of a training course and follow-up as part of continuing professional development.

Q at the Entry to a Programme


Real life and learning needs. Firstly, the need to learn is more fundamental than the mere solution to a problem or a project for career development. Secondly, because the course is related to their work, the "user" is often seen as someone with clearly defined expectations. However, although the majority of adults entering a university have a plan, most of them do not have clear and precise expectations; they are hoping to find new directions for enquiry and development. Thus the challenge to the university in accommodating mature students goes beyond taking his or her plans into account. Just as when shopping, consumers feel the need to "buy" (in this case to learn), they may also be very responsive to new stimuli, may follow an impulse, and may change their mind about what they actually want and need. The possibility of change should therefore be taken into account when advising students about their studies at the outset (however such advice is provided), and when they are being tutored during the course of their studies.

The process of engagement. There are two sides to this: the individual's and the institution's. The mature student should be able to clarify his or her real motives for coming to university during an interview conducted by a competent counsellor. The object is not to direct or select, but to help individuals prepare for the learning process and relate it to their own professional, social and private situation. This is the beginning of the learning contract. On the institutional side, the presence of adults in the university should reinforce the acceptance of AP(E)L in order to recognise knowledge and skills acquired in professional and private life. This process of accreditation should encourage mature students, whether graduates or not, to come to university. Its implementation depends on a determined effort to introduce a genuinely adult-orientated policy at all levels within the institution from the Rector, President or Vice-Chancellor down.

Demands of the training system. National systems vary in the bureaucratic demands placed on the mature student. Funding and support systems can be complex and entail obligations of various kinds, particularly paperwork that can be very time-consuming and/or off-putting. The degree of clarity and accessibility in this aspect of continuing education can encourage or discourage a potential student, as well as contribute to success or failure in obtaining the financial support and other resources needed.

Q in Teaching


Individualisation. Since each individual student will spend differing amounts of time and energy on different topics according to his or her needs and the demands of work, the programme of studies needs to be compatible with part-time study, individual plans and individual production of knowledge. These conditions need to be established in an open programme composed of free-standing individual modules or units which are individually assessed. Changes are demanded in the traditional construction of a curriculum, in teaching methods and in working collaboratively with students. All these features will be set down in a "learning contract" which will involve many stake-holders: the student, the continuing education department if it exists, representation from the teaching departments or faculties involved and possibly the employer.

Protected learning space. As "clients", mature students continue to learn within the university system on the basis of a number of criteria: the value added by teachers to existing knowledge and skill acquired in the workplace; the quality of tutoring and support matching high expectations; privileged access to the latest technical knowledge; and a long-term link between that knowledge and the reality of professional practice. All these are factors in the conditions for adult learning and professional development, which differ somewhat from those associated with the instruction of traditional students. The great variety of personal and professional experience that adults bring to continuing education means that great care must be taken with the organisation and the quality of teaching and tutoring.

Q in the Transition to Work


Awards and the transfer of knowledge to practice. Towards the end of the learning experience, although there is of course no real end to lifelong learning, the question of the award is a live issue in continuing education. Rather than a mere certificate of completion, the award of a university diploma can be a very real symbol of success and recognition in an insecure working life. For this reason it is up to the university and its continuing education arm to enhance the image and secure the foundations of its continuing education programmes, so as to strengthen links between higher education and the workplace and the company. The currency -the "quality"- of a diploma depends not only on its academic rigour, but on its usefulness to and its recognition by the outside world, especially in the case of adults. The choice of assessment methods needs to take this into account. Case studies, project management, and the recruitment of professional experts as co-evaluators are all innovations that aim for the same objective -that university continuing education should promote the transfer of theoretical knowledge into the workplace. The responsibility for this should not be left to the individual, it is a real challenge both to the institution and to all involved.

Long-term follow-up. If lifelong learning and continuing education are taken seriously, the achievement of an award is not, as in the traditional model, the end of the learning process. As a reflective practitioner who also considers the future, the mature student will need to keep in touch with experts, for professional reasons and for personal development, as well as with fellow students, who can offer a rich source of shared experience and insight as well as critical analysis. The university must develop a more and more flexible yet stable structure to accommodate this and the continuing education department should play a major role in guaranteeing an effective quality framework.