Higher Education and Quality Assurance

Higher Education and Quality Assurance

Higher Education and Quality Assurance

2.1 Introduction

This chapter deals with the arguments highlighted in the literature on quality assurance in higher education. It begins with the varied definitions proposed to grasp quality and its assurance. As is common to definitions, there seems to be no universally accepted definition of quality. Another key dimension of the literature deals with the arguments on the different approaches to quality assurance. Such arguments are embedded in the power tension between improvement and accountability, respectively associated to internal and external quality assurance. A critical review of the different quality assurance approaches, methods and the underlying values and power relations are reviewed.

This chapter also reviews the literature concerning the origin and adoption of quality assurance models in higher education. Section 2.4 examines the quality assurance models developed for higher education and derives a synthesis of common features. It also tries to defy the notion that quality assurance models developed for industry are suitable to the core functions of higher education institutions.

The review in section 2.5 addresses quality assurance experiences of developed and developing countries; an undertaking aimed at drawing some international good practices. Synthesis of the main elements of the conceptual discussions is presented

2.2 Conceptualizing Quality Assurance in Higher Education

The basis for conceptualizing is, as in any field of study, to start with providing working definitions for the most frequent and endemic vocabulary. Accordingly, this study makes use of basic terminologies pervasive in the literature in order to carve the main theme of this study.

2.2.1. Debates on Defining Quality

Defining the term quality is one of the challenging tasks and ‘repeated mantras’ among scholars in the contemporary higher education. Many authors consider quality as a notoriously elusive (Gibson, 1986; Neave, 1986; Scott, 1994), slippery (Pfeffer and Coot, 1991), relative (Baird, 1998; Harvey and Green, 1993; Middlehurst, 1992; Vroeijenstijn, 1992; Westerheijden, 1990), dynamic (Boyle and Bowden, 1997), and multidimensional (Campbell and Rozsnyai, 2002) concept. Other scholars approach quality as it embodies both intrinsic and extrinsic elements (Ball, 1985; Barnett, 1992, and van Vught, 1994). Still to other authors, quality is a philosophical concept that lacks a general theory in the literature (Green, 1994; Westerheijden, 1999).

Many scholars have referred to the highly cited tagline of Pirsig (1974) quality education can be measured to show the bewilderment related with understanding of quality: Quality is what it is, yet we don’t know what it is. That’s self-contradictory. Some things are improved than others, i.e, they have more quality when compared. If we cannot explain what education quality is, how do we know what it is, or how do we know quality education exists? If no one knows what it is, then for all practical purposes it does not exist at all. For all practical purposes it really does exist. What are the grades based on? Why would people pay fortunes for some things and throw others in the shredder? Obviously some things are better than some.

This suggests that it is not possible to find a universally accepted and comprehensive definition of quality in higher education. It has been subject to various and ambiguous interpretations. Mortimore and Stone (1991), for example, identified four uses of the term quality: an attrie or defining essence; a degree or relative worth; a description of something good or excellent, and a non-qualified trait. This definition contains a normative or comparative element. Others liken quality to the standards that must be met in order to achieve special purposes to the satisfaction of customers (Ellis, 1993). Standards, according to Ashcroft and Forman Peck (1996), refer to the minimum threshold by which performance is judged. From the human capital perspective, Barnett (1992) correlates quality of higher education to both the character of the educational development and the educational achievements of the students engaged on the programs of study in question.

From a stakeholders’ way of thinking, Vroeijenstijn (2006) inferred that quality lies in the eyes of the educational beholder and any definition of quality must take into account the views of various educational stakeholder. In line with this, Cheng and Tam (1997) described quality as a system that constitutes the system with input, process, and output of the educational system and that provides services that completely satisfy both internal and external stakeholders by meeting their explicit and implicit expectations. The expectations of the different stakeholders may not only be disparate even controversial at times. Similarly, Vlãsceanu and associates (2007, p.70) clearly put out that quality in higher education is a multi-dimensional, multilevel, and dynamic concept that is related to educational standards and to the institutional goals, as well as to standards in a given system, organization, program, or discipline sustaining the stakeholders’ views of quality, Harvey and Green (1993) identified five discrete and interrelated ways of thinking about quality as follows.

Quality as being exceptional: this notion is related to the traditional and elitist academic view that perceives quality as something special, and distinctive. In educational terms it epitomizes excellence, high level performance, passing a minimum set of standards unattainable by most. In this view, quality is achieved if the standards are surpassed. Such focus on exceptionally high standards of academic achievements would normally drive higher education institutions to selective intake. The internal stakeholders, the faculty/academic staff for instance, are more likely to support this view.

Quality as being perfection: quality is perceived as a consistent or flawless outcome. It focuses on the specifications of processes. It is also culminated by the interrelated ideas of zero defects and getting things right first time. This view is based on the assumption that if consistency can be achieved then quality would be attained as a matter of course. This dimension of quality is not always applicable to higher education, since no higher education institution could possibly and soberly aim at producing identical or defect free graduates (Watty, 2003).

Quality as being fitness for purpose: conformity with institutional missions as well as capacity to fulfilling customer’s requirements is the principal perspective underlying this. There is wide spread agreement on the critique that ‘fitness for purpose’ alone is too wide an interpretation of quality in higher education; hence the need to accompany it by some discussion of ‘fitness of purpose’ (Westerheijden, 1999). The interpretation of quality as fitness of purpose is linked to the adequacy of the quality related intentions of an organization, which provides a check on Quality as value for money: This view perceives quality in terms of return on investment or expenditure. This view embodies efficiency, effectiveness and accountability. It focuses on how the inputs are efficiently used by the process in a manner that they produce the desired outputs. A simple instance could be an attempt to producing more graduates with less cost. This way of thinking seems to be of interest to those who fund higher education including government, administrators, parents and students.

Quality as transformation: refers to the classic notion that views quality in terms of change of the learner. Transformation refers to the enhancement and empowerment of students or the development of new knowledge through the learning process. This notion of quality presupposes a fundamental purpose of higher education in terms of transforming the life experiences of students. The transformation concept, as argued by Harvey and Knight (1996), is a meta quality concept. The other ideologies are possible operationalizations of the transformative process rather than ends in themselves. Harvey, (2002) suggests that in an era of mass higher education, value added transformation ought to become the central element of any concept of quality rather than excellence, fitness for purpose or value for money.

There is also an emerging argument in the literature on the view of quality as culture (see EUA, 2006; NAAC, 2007; Harvey and Stensaker, (2008). Such perspective recognizes the importance of the organizational view of quality as a process of transformation, where each entity is concerned with and acknowledges the importance of quality. This way of conceptualization is related to the intrinsic traits of higher education in which quality is valued as a driving force behind what everyone does in an organization.

In connection with this, quality culture in education is conceived as an organizational culture that involves: (1) an element of values and beliefs commitments towards quality, and (2) a structural or managerial element with well-defined processes that enhance quality and coordinate efforts (EUA, 2006). Others perceived quality culture as organizational culture, which contries to the development of effective and efficient care for quality. It is concerned more with the behavior of the people involved in the organization than the operation of a quality system. As Harvey and Stensaker (2008) argued, a quality culture is not likely to be constructed irrespective of the context in which it is located. From the above discussions, we can observe that quality is a construct and its meaning is contextual. As Barnett (1999) puts it, what counts, as quality is never neutral and behind it is always a tacit idea of higher education. In other words, the various arguments on what constitutes quality are rooted in the values and assumptions of the different authors about the nature, purpose and fundamental processes of higher education. As Boyle and Bowden (1997) argued, in a context of purposeful organizations and enterprises quality can only be defined in relation to articulated values, purposes, desired processes, experiences and outcomes. Since the purpose of higher education varies and changes across time and context in response to changing environments, so too should the meaning of quality. In this regard, there is a strong support for envisaging quality in terms of ‘fitness for purpose’ in higher education.

Within the human resource perspective, there is a strong argument for conceiving quality as ‘transformation’ that focuses on important aspects of higher education: educational processes and the enhancement of student learning experience. It is argued that student learning is any way a necessary condition for all the possible purposes or core operations of higher education, though there is no well-established ‘production theory’ prescribing how to turn available inputs into the desired end (Westerheijden, Stensaker and Rosa, 2007). (Campbell and Rozsnyai, 2002). Horsburgh (1999) also argued that the focus of quality should, in such a rapidly changing world, be on the attires of graduates, where the transformation of the learner is central. In this regard, Srikanthan and Dalrymple (2003) argued that it is the view of quality as “transformation” of the participants that is capable of addressing the concerns of all the stakeholders’ group. It should be noted that each of the approaches to defining quality has implications on the nature of quality assurance system and on the policy adopted in a particular higher education system. Also, the emphasis given to each conception of quality depends on the context. The ideologies and issues concerning quality assurance are discussed in the section that follows.

2.2.2. Quality Assurance

There is a wide range of discussion on the concept of quality assurance in the literature concerned with higher education. The arguments around the adoption of quality assurance depend on diverse perspectives on what counts as quality. Consequently, there seems to be no universally accepted conceptual framework of quality assurance in higher education. To Vroeijenstijn (1995) quality assurance is a structured and continuous attention to quality in terms of quality maintenance and development.’ Most authors on the concept of quality assurance share this view.

Other authors focus on learning in conceptualizing quality assurance in higher education. Centrex (2004), for instance, defines quality assurance as the means by which an organization confirms that conditions are in place for students to achieve the standards set by the training organization. Green (1994) also maintains that quality assurance practice is considered important for it enables a university become a learning organization. If this is so, underlying pedagogical assumptions concerning the teaching and learning relationships implicit in quality assurance come into focus.

According to Barnett (1992), quality assurance implies a determination to develop a culture of quality in an institution of higher education, so that everyone is aware of his own part in sustaining and improving the quality of the institution. Still others consider quality assurance in higher education as a process of establishing stakeholder confidence that provision (input, process, and outcomes) fulfills expectations or measures up to threshold minimum requirements (Harvey, 2002). In the context of higher education, quality assurance is viewed as the ongoing development and implementation of ethos, policies, and processes that aim to maintain and enhance quality as defined by articulated values and stakeholder needs (Boyle and Bowden, 1997).

In line with this, Cheng and Tam (1997) noted that if higher education is considered as a system, then any quality assurance program should concentrate on assessing input, process and outputs. Quality assurance may also be viewed as a term covering all the processes through which quality of higher education is maintained and developed (Campbell & Rozsnyai, 2002). In the same vein, Vlãsceanu, Grunberg and Parlea (2007) provide an extended description of quality assurance as follows:

Quality assurance is an all embracing term referring to an ongoing, continuous process of evaluating the extent of quality in higher education systems or programs. As a regulatory mechanism, quality assurance focuses on both accountability and improvement (2007, p.74).

The definitions given above illustrate that quality assurance is a generic term open to many interpretations. However, there seems to be a consistent thread that we could find across the varied perspectives. Some common elements are apparently highlighted through the vocabulary like systematic, planned and structured.

Accordingly, a quality assurance system in higher education institutions may be described as the totality of the policies, values/attitudes, procedures, structures, resources and actions devoted to ensure continuous improvement of quality of the educational processes. The definitions also imply conceptions like accountability, improvement, or both. Advocates of quality assurance view accountability as necessary not only to satisfy external constituents, also as a precondition for improvement, especially in undergraduate education (Wilger, 1997). There is also an argument that improvement, arising from regular monitoring of the services offered, should be at the heart of any quality assurance process (FETAC, 2007). This suggests that quality assurance has both intrinsic and extrinsic roles in effecting improvement, sustaining accountability and encouraging exchange between the system and its context. There is also a tension between improvement and accountability in quality assurance, which leads to the different types of quality assurance. This and related issues are further explored in the next section.

Quality Assurance examples in Higher Education

Much of the discourse on quality and quality assurance dwells on issues of values and power relations between and among the different stakeholders in higher education institutions. Such ways of thinking determine the quality assurance types adopted by a certain higher education institution. This section presents the varied ways of thinking that underlie the diverse quality assurance types and models in higher education

Quality Values in Quality Assurance

As Brennan and Shah (2000) argue, how quality assessment is organized and managed is importantly a question of power. Moreover, the introduction of systems of quality assurance involves shifting the balance of power between the institutional and system levels. Conceptions of quality in particular higher education institutions and countries may entail several types of values. This suggests that the adoption of an approach is contingent upon quality conceptions and values of a certain type. Brennan and Shah (2000, p. 14) identified four main forms of quality values that underlie different approaches to quality assurance, viz. academic, managerial, pedagogic and employment focus.

In the academic, criteria of quality stem from the characteristics of the subject; the focal point. This type is associated with strong professional authority and academic values. Conceptions of quality are based on subject affiliation and vary across the higher education institution, which has limited scope to define and assess quality.

The managerial category is grounded on the assumption that good management can produce quality. Hence it is associated with institutional focus of assessment. The institutional policies, procedures and structures are the spotlight of the assessment. Quality characteristics are regarded as invariant across the entire institution. According to the authors, the principles of total quality management provided an underlying ideological justification for this type.

In the pedagogic category, teaching skills and classroom practices of the faculty is emphasized. This is strongly associated with staff training and development. Quality characteristics are considered invariant across the institution. In this approach, a lot of emphasis seems to be given to the delivery aspect than to the content.

In the employment focused category, more attention is given to graduate output characteristics, standards and learning outcomes. This approach is normally associated to customer satisfaction in which employers of graduates are usually regarded as customers. It takes into account both elements of subject specific and core characteristics of high quality education. Quality contains some features invariant across the institution. Some other features may also vary according to subject.

These four categories are elaborated further and applied by Luckett (2006). Luckett argues that quality assurance systems are replete with power tensions; and thus, the focus in analyzing any quality assurance system should not be so much on how quality is formally defined, as on in identifying whose interest is served. Accordingly, key questions such as ‘who is in control of the evaluation? Who initiates and owns it? Is the ownership internal or external to the academic community?’ should be asked in analyzing any quality assurance system.

Adopting the four quality values, Luckett proposed four ways of thinking to quality assurance in universities: ‘collegial rationality, managerial rationality, facilitative rationality, and bureaucratic rationality’ (Luckett, 2006). Each of these types of quality assurance is summarized hereunder. Quality assurance in the collegial type is conducted within the norms and values of the academics since it presupposes that academics are in control of the conditions of their professional work. The purpose of this quality assurance is enlightenment of academics and improvement in which academics learn more about their teaching and determine how to improve. The models of quality assurance in this type are typically controlled and owned internally and locally. The academic staff would initiate and design the evaluation of their programs and determine the criteria for making context specific judgments about quality. The criteria for quality are usually implicit, founded in shared meanings with interpretive and inter subjective methodology. The most utilized method in the collegial type is self-evaluation wherein the academics themselves are the key agents of the evaluation. Students are not considered as customers and their evaluations and opinions are subject to triangulation with opinion data from other sources such as external peers and staff themselves. The academia owned the evaluation results and they are the primary audience of the findings. The results serve formative purpose never linked to any extrinsic reward or punishment. The effectiveness of this type is based on collegial agreement on improvements made. The conception of quality as excellence fits this type. This is praised for it is most likely to lead to genuine improvement of quality. On the other hand, the fact that the evaluation and peer reviews may lack critical distance; and hence, may become protectionist is a point of criticism against it.

The critique can also be taken farther by suspecting that quality criteria may remain implicit and unclear to outsiders, hence, improbability to meet accountability requirements. The managerial type to quality assurance is grounded in the belief that good management is the key factor in productivity of successful organizations. Corporate management, explicit systems and procedures, strategic planning and greater centralization and regulation by management characterize this category. As a response to external pressures, monitoring of academic work through the establishment of institutional quality management systems is believed to enhance efficiency and effectiveness of institutions as organizations. Quality assurance is viewed as a management tool to strengthen the institution and the central authority at the expense of professional power. The purpose of quality assurance in this type is to enlighten the senior management. The locus of control of quality assurance in this category is at the senior management level and usually devolved to the middle management level. The institution as a whole is the focus of evaluation in this type and the senior managers are the primary audiences as well as the owners of the model of quality assurance. The methods include self-evaluation, followed by validating findings by external peers and then using findings for summative purpose. The management in consultation with quality assurance experts determines the evaluation criteria. The definition of quality as fitness for purpose fits this type because the focus is on improving effectiveness and efficiency. The managerial approach may be useful in facilitating accountability culture in universities. The methodological critique of this type is the assumption that human achievement of predetermined goals can be objectively measured against standardized criteria. In this approach, students are considered as customers.

In the facilitative type, external authorities or agencies play a facilitative or supportive role in quality assurance. The quality assurance models are owned and controlled externally are improvement oriented. The criteria used to measure quality would be internally owned. The typical method here is that quality assurance is external audit where the external agency validates the internal quality assurance system; does not make judgments about quality as such. The evaluators are peer experts who operate on behalf of the external agency their appointment is mostly approved by the evaluated. The results of evaluation are neither punitive nor linked to funding and the evaluation report is often confidential. This type of quality assurance is useful to stimulate systematic internal self evaluation and improvement processes. It helps to make institutional quality assurance processes more explicit and institutionalized. One of the drawbacks of this type is that evaluations can be superficial and add little value to the institutional self-evaluation. The definition of quality as fitness for purpose also fits more to this type.

The bureaucratic type to quality assurance is based on norms and values that are external to the institutions and on which they are imposed. These norms and values are those related to governance and control such as administrative efficiency and system building priorities that are grounded in the instrumental view of higher education. Quality assurance models have accountability and compliance purposes and are externally controlled and owned by a government funded and appointed agency with legal status. The government usually initiates quality assurance, and reflects the interests of external quality agency. The quality assurance methods employed in this type are institutional audit1 of quality assurance systems, the accreditation2 of institutions and programs, evaluation of research and external examination3 of students. Standardized criteria provided by government are used to measure performance and accountability with a focus on input, output and outcomes. Students are viewed in this type as customers. The results of evaluation are linked to sanctions in terms of running a program or institutions and funding. The strength of this type is that it asserts government control and institutes a standardized model of accountability across the system and uses quality assurance to steer the higher education system towards state defined goals. It is, however, likely to be a reduction of diversity in the higher education system and the process dimension is usually ignored in the evaluation processes. The quality assurance is unlikely to contrive to the improvement of the organizational practices. Consequently, this may drive the academics to a culture of compliance and conformity. The definitions of quality as fitness for purpose and quality as value for money fit this


The four types to quality assurance reviewed above underlie the notions of purpose and power tensions in the implementation of quality assurance systems in universities. The collegial type to quality assurance is based on the professional view of quality and its assurance. In this type, the assumption that the academics are governed by professional ethics, integrity and reasonableness may be true. This by itself might not be a guarantee for the successful implementation of quality assurance in universities unless it is accompanied by some degree of transparency and objectivity. The other three types may not result in improvement of quality in higher education institutions unless the participation and ownership of the academics is ensured. This suggests that a successful implementation of quality assurance in universities demands a balanced blend ofthe four quality assurance types.

The four types can be classified into two broad domains: internal and external. The collegial and managerial types go to the internal quality assurance, whereas the external quality assurance comprises the facilitative and bureaucratic types. There is a tension on the balance between the two domains of evaluation. This and related issues are briefly discussed in the section that follows.

External and Internal Quality Assurance

There is a continuous debate in the quality assurance literature on whether the emphasis of quality assurance should be on accountability or on improvement. How appropriate balance between these two purposes might be struck is also another point (See Campbell & Rozsnyai, 2002). The dichotomy between external (accountability oriented) and internal (improvement oriented) quality assurance exercises is a matter of how the exercise is initiated, who owns the practice and the resulting effect on higher education institutions. Internal quality assurance refers to those policies and practices whereby academic institutions themselves monitor and improve the quality of their education provision, while external quality assurance refers to suprainstitutional policies and practices whereby external bodies assure the quality of higher education institutions and programs (Dill, 2007). It is argued that external quality assurance is in general more accountability oriented, summative, and judgmental and that it provides only a snapshot of quality, while internal quality assurance is more formative in nature and likely to lead to continual quality improvement efforts and the development of quality culture in institutions (Barnett, 1994; Askling, 1997, and Wiclund, et al., 2003).

External quality assurance assumes the conceptions of quality as fitness for purpose and value for money, whereas the transformation view of quality is linked with internal quality assurance approach. Van Vught (1994) argues that, on the one hand, quality assurance systems that only emphasize on collegial peer review without reference to the needs of outside stakeholders like professional organizations, employers and other training organizations risk isolating higher education institutions from the rest of the world. On the other hand, the academic experts of the institutions may not take quality assurance systems seriously and are limited to merely providing accountability to the state. This suggests the need for the right balance between the two. As Boyd and Fresen (2004) put it, the internal and external approaches are not mutually exclusive opposites are both essential, in relative proportions, for a successful quality assurance system at the higher education institutions. In this regard, the equilibrium between the internal and external mechanisms, mediated by the institutional quality culture, is necessary for the effective implementation of quality assurance in higher education institutions (see Harvey, 2007).

There are, however, arguments that quality improvement is not easily achieved through external quality assurance whatever the official balance between quality improvement and accountability may be (Westerheijden, et al, 2007). This suggests that external quality assurance cannot stand alone in effecting quality improvement in higher education institutions. In relation to this, Harvey (1996) argued that an external quality assurance approach in higher education has a high probability of leading to a culture of compliance in the end. The academic staff may comply with external quality assurance mechanisms to minimize disruptions rather than to improving quality. External quality assurance is also criticized for its inadequacy to address issues related to actual student learning experience. Genuine improvement, according to Barnett (1999), comes through self-understanding. Other authors also had the opinion that academic quality is best guaranteed when the responsibility for it is located as closely as possible to the processes of teaching and learning (Wilger, 1997).

The arguments above suggest that externally controlled quality assurance mechanisms may not necessarily lead to quality improvement, that they can complement internally controlled quality assurance mechanisms. In this sense, it can be argued that a formal quality assurance system leads to continuous quality improvement when it is internally owned and controlled and the external quality assurance system plays a supportive and facilitative role to the internal practices.

Continuous quality improvement, as the EUA depicted, requires organizational commitment for self-evaluation. Effective self-evaluation demands addressing four fundamental questions: what is the organization trying to do (focus on leadership and policies)? How is it trying to do it (focus on strategies and resources for action)? How does it know it works (focus on indicators and measures of success)? How does the organization change in order to improve (focus on feedback and learning)? These four