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As college and university students head off to their campuses to start a new year, a question to ask is: Heading off to what? While access to postsecondary education and barriers thereto are the perpetual subject of attention, issues surrounding the quality of schooling are generally given short shrift - especially at the university level.

Focusing on "the quality agenda" is especially important now for at least two reasons:

First, the university experience has changed in recent years in many important ways, including the introduction of computer technology on a mass scale, larger classes and (related?) lower class attendance, and we don't understand the effects of these changes very well - in other words, which are good, which are bad and where we want to go.

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Second, universities were hit hard by the stock-market crash, which tore into their endowments and pension funds. They have been forced to cut costs and students will notice the difference: larger classes, fewer course offerings, shortened library and lab hours, and a general decline in the quality of their educational experience.

Governments should consider stepping in to help. But now - as always - they should be concerned about how any financial infusions get spent. Should professors' salaries be given priority and their numbers protected because "quality" resides in the faculty? Or should more be spent on student services, including teaching assistants and various "resource centres"? Or elsewhere?

The general problem is that while a good deal is understood about what makes for a higher-quality education, there is still much that we do not know. What are the precise effects of class size or rank of the professor giving the course? What pedagogical approaches or evaluation methods work best in different situations? What difference does a good library really make in the Internet age?

The history of attempts to measure and improve quality is not a happy one. Governments have attempted to find metrics for "quality" in order to introduce accountability and transparency into their relations with institutions. These initiatives have, however, typically been met with suspicion by the institutions on the grounds that the simple indicators used are at best crude measures of quality, and tend not to take into account important differences in location, mix of students and choice of courses offered.

What's needed is not some new set of numerical targets for spending patterns, head counts or other such indicators, but rather a concerted attempt to exploit the massive potential of the data already at our disposal to better measure, understand and improve quality.

Every institution now holds detailed electronic student records that include not only which classes have been taken and how individuals have performed in them, but also the specific nature of the educational experiences at a detailed level: class size, kind of instructor, method of examination etc. Furthermore, all this can be related to the students' high school record (courses, grades) and even proxy measures (or better) of their socio-economic background. Being able to follow students over time makes these data all the richer. The potential of using this information to learn about quality and how it might be improved is enormous.

While most institutions do carry out some analysis of the data they hold, most lack the resources and expertise required to fully exploit the information available. What is required is a concerted, organized research initiative led by government and the institutions themselves, perhaps co-ordinated through their various provincial and national organizations. A research plan over, say, five years would see individual institutions take greater advantage of their own data, pool their information to benefit from the wider basis of comparison that would result, and otherwise engage in the research required to identify the proverbial "best practices," where these exist, and generally shed light on what makes for a better-quality education.

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"Output" measures are always controversial, but a mix of indicators including grades, standardized tests, student evaluations and surveys could be used. Privacy concerns would need to be addressed, but this could be done by stripping the data of individual identifiers and by other standard research practices.

All of this will not be without controversy and will undoubtedly face resistance, but we believe this would constitute a relatively low-cost, high-benefit plan that most stakeholders in the system would embrace. It is essentially about identifying quality and how it is attained - and this is something everyone should support.

Ross Finnie is an economist

in the graduate school of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. Alex Usher

is the vice-president (research)

and director (Canada) of the

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Educational Policy Institute.

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