Contesting the Third Level Paradigm

March 5, 2007 at 4:31 pm | Posted in Articles | 1 Comment

The NQAI Framework – Substituting process for outputs.

The NQAI Framework is presently the dominant paradigm used to describe third level education in Ireland. While the Universities have been somewhat reluctant to implement this Framework, the Institutes of Technology have enthusiastically embraced it. Below are some comments critiquing the Framework.


The NQAI Framework purports to be an instrument which improves the educational process. This assertion is grounded on the proposition that the Framework renders the outcomes of learning demonstrable, measurable and comparable. However, embedded within this claim is a particular understanding of education itself. The Framework is not a neutral device for improvement but imports a specific and contestable philosophy of education.


1. The NQAI Framework conceptualises education as an activity which results in demonstrable and measurable outputs. Achieving these outputs is regarded as the objective of the learning activity. The claim is that these outputs can be identified in advance of beginning the learning and can furthermore be rendered into assessable achievements at the conclusion of the process.

In fact, far from obvious or apparent these are ideologically laden assertions regarding the nature of education. It may be more appropriate to argue that education involves a process of discovery which cannot in point of fact culminate within a modular time-frame and that an appropriate assessment tool is obliged to reflect that reality. In this sense, all learning outcomes cannot in principle be measurable. Aspects of the learning may be of course, and have always been, but there must be a recognition of the limitation of assessment in capturing the totality or even trajectory of learning. The outcomes of education and of any specific module should surely be to develop thinking, critical engagement with reality, reflection and autonomy. None of these may be adequately captured in any assessment tool yet these may represent the most important medium and long term learning outcomes.


2. Not only does the NQAI Framework contract the intellectual field of learning to measurable outputs it also contracts the temporal field within which learning is assumed to occur. The Framework, together with its vehicle of delivery the module, assumes learning outputs to be achieved within constrained time horizons. The preferred 13-week modular vehicle imposes temporal restrictions on learning and exploration. The assessment horizon is always close enough to cast a shadow and orientation on the learning process. This again accentuates the assumption that the assessment is the objective of the educational activity. This results in the real likelihood that assessment and assessment criteria will effectively dominate the learning and reflective processes of the student.


3. The consequence is that instead of learning as a shared activity of exploration between student and teacher it is instead rendered into the attainment of pre-determined output measurables within a specific time horizon. There is clearly a particular educational philosophy at work here. The outcome descriptors recommended by the NQAI represent the logical consequence of such an approach. Here, language itself is constrained and constricted so that all modular outputs can be described in comparable terms within a mass production paradigm. The implied model for this is McDonaldisation whereby key concepts such as predictability, measurability and a version of efficiency become unquestioned values to be operationalised in pre-set menus, bite-sized nuggets of consumable service and rapid and sequential delivery.


The inevitable result is to reduce the complexity of education and, indeed, of the world with which education engages and seeks to enrich, into a simplified set of technical challenges to be resolved within 13-week sequences of input-output information delivery. While this model greatly assists bureaucratic management of the process it does irreparable damage to education itself.


Hence, I submit that the worldview on which the NQAI Framework is posited be critiqued in terms of its core rationality. The Framework does not assist in accurately describing or facilitating the education process. Instead it creates a reductionist version of education and replaces the preferred ideal of the critical student-citizen with that of the compliant student-consumer.


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  1. i am gonna show this to my friend, man

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