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18,1 Quality, semantics and the two
6 National University of Singapore, CELC, Singapore
Purpose – The aims of this paper are twofold: ﬁrst, to engage with the deﬁnition of quality as
“excellence” and to show why this could be regarded as unhelpful and misleading; and, second, to
suggest some factors which contribute to a “cultural divide” between quality assurance specialists in
universities and their colleagues who are full-time academics. In both cases the paper seeks to raise
and explore these issues because their resolution may suggest ways forward for quality assurance in
Design/methodology/approach – The paper is generally based on consideration and critical
evaluation of published work relevant to the two issues mentioned previously. However, other forms of
evidence are drawn into the argument. Notably, lexical data from the British National Corpus are
examined in order to substantiate points about the semantics of the word “quality”.
Findings – The paper ﬁnds, on the grounds of both lexical semantics and consideration of scholarly
literature on quality assurance in higher education, that it is unhelpful to understand the term
“quality” as equivalent to “excellence”. It also identiﬁes possible reasons why a “cultural divide” exists
between university lecturers and quality assurance specialists.
Originality/value – The paper should be of interest to both quality assurance specialists and
lecturers in universities. It offers logical, language-based reasons why “quality” should not be
regarded as “excellence” and goes on to relate this to the notion of “quality enhancement”. Preliminary
suggestions are also made about means through which the “cultural divide” between academics and
quality assurance specialists might be narrowed, to the potential beneﬁt of universities seen as both
complex entrepreneurial organizations, and academic communities.
Keywords Higher education, Universities, Quality, Quality assurance, Semantics
Paper type Viewpoint
Doherty’s recent (2008) paper in this journal will no doubt have stimulated many
readers to re-think their personal positions on the characteristics and contribution of
quality assurance to higher education. The tone of the paper is frank, there is very
little fence-sitting, and the reader is therefore obliged to confront Doherty’s
arguments. The impulse to write the present paper arose from Doherty’s (2008)
paper, although as it developed it also came to encompass a couple of hobby horses
of my own.
I should begin, perhaps, by identifying more explicitly the two primary motivations
for the present paper. First, I want to explain why I ﬁnd the notion of quality as
“excellence” (Cartwright, 2007; Doherty, 2008) unhelpful; and second, to offer some
observations about the apparently divergent views on quality espoused by Vidovich’s
(2001, p. 258) “academics” and “bureaucrats” – a “cultural” distinction which reminds
Quality Assurance in Education one of that between “literary intellectuals” and “physical scientists” drawn long ago
Vol. 18 No. 1, 2010
pp. 6-18 (initially in the 1959 Rede Lecture) by C.P. Snow (1963). The comparison between
q Emerald Group Publishing Limited Snow’s “two cultures” and the academic/bureaucrat divide identiﬁed by Vidovich will
DOI 10.1108/09684881011015963 be further discussed later. The overall intention here is to suggest tentatively how
steps could be taken towards establishing a quality assurance culture which would be Quality,
more warmly accepted by a majority of those involved in higher education as being of semantics and
genuine beneﬁt to the sector.
I must also begin with a personal declaration. During my career I have, among other the two cultures
things, been a lecturer in two British universities and taken a leading role in quality
assurance at higher education institutions in Oman and Fiji. I therefore have some
understanding of the concerns and aspirations of both the groups set in opposition to 7
each other by Vidovich (2001). Essentially this paper consists of my own ideas
crystallized with the aid of published work in the ﬁeld; but in discussion of the various
senses and uses of the word “quality” I also make use of data from free online access to
the British National Corpus (hereafter BNC) to support my argument.
What do we mean by “quality” in an educational context?
What the hell is quality? What is it? (Pirsig, 1974, p. 184).
There is no simple answer to that question, since “quality” like “beauty” is subjective – a
matter of personal judgement (Doherty, 2008, p. 256).
Occasionally, but not so frequently as was once the case, I’m asked the hoary old question:
what is quality? If the infrequency of the question means that everyone is now clear what
quality is, then that’s a major step forward in improving higher education. I hope, but am not
yet entirely sure, that this is so (Williams 2004, p. 1).
The word “quality” is, both in general usage and in specialist texts, a rather
slippery word. For one thing, as will be illustrated in the following, through
dictionary deﬁnitions and BNC data, it can occur as both a noun and an adjective.
Furthermore, “quality” is a polysemous noun: that is, it is used as a noun in several
distinct but related senses. For both these reasons it is entirely possible to make
misleading statements inadvertently about what “quality” means, or should mean,
and I would like to argue that those who take the view that “quality” means
excellence are, indeed, in danger of leading us astray. For instance, to take an
example from Britain, the 2003 White Paper (The Future of Higher Education –
DES, 2003) essentially conﬂates excellence and quality, with Box B (p. 27) providing
several striking examples. Similarly, Bogue and Hall (2003, p. 8) state that they use
the words “excellence” and “quality” as conveying “the same meaning”; while, as
Cartwright (2007, p. 290) notes, Harvey and Green’s (1993) notion of “quality as
excellence” has also been greatly inﬂuential in establishing this as a widespread
Several years ago, in a journal which is primarily read by those who take a
professional interest in the English language, I offered (Poole, 2005) a rather clumsy
account of the semantics of the word “quality”. Here I shall try to present the basic
linguistic and semantic facts more brieﬂy and, I hope, more clearly.
First, “quality” means “excellence” rather rarely in general usage, although – and
this complicates the issue – it quite frequently means “excellent”. Dictionaries tend to
recognize several senses associated with “quality” as a noun. For example, in the
Collins Dictionary of the English Language (Hanks, 1979, p. 1194) the ﬁrst ﬁve senses
(1) A distinguishing characteristic, property or attribute.
(2) The basic character or nature of something.
QAE (3) A trait or feature of personality.
18,1 (4) A degree or standard of excellence, especially a high standard.
(5) High social status or the distinction associated with it.
Presumably the notion of quality-as-excellence is to be associated with sense 4 here. In
fact, however, textual examples of “quality” as a noun meaning “excellence” – whether
8 in BNC or elsewhere – are few and far between. In the following are three, from BNC
(strings of letters and numbers are BNC reference codes, which potentially allow
identiﬁcation of the original source text):
. EX0 459 The ﬁneness of the knotting is not an infallible indicator of quality.
K4F 20 BMW puts on a show of quality.
H47 69 Quality is here to stay.
However, in many cases (in BNC data) the noun “quality” has a neutral meaning. For
instance it occurs frequently in phrases such as “water quality”, “sound quality” (the
quality of sound) and “air quality”. Here are other examples:
K25 3712 The quality is variable but is generally vastly inferior to the genuine
FT7 447 I never use a 2X converter on the Bronica as the drop in quality is
CBP 54 This involves a slight drop in picture quality.
We might ponder here for a moment the apparent difference in meaning between
“education quality” (where “quality” is a noun) and “quality education” (where it
functions as a pre-modiﬁer). However, these examples also illustrate a fundamental
difference between “quality” and “excellence”: the former is inherently variable and can
be associated with levels ranging from high/exceptional to satisfactory/acceptable to
low/poor, while for the latter this is far less apparent. For instance, there are 193
examples of “poor quality” in online BNC; 18 examples of “acceptable quality”; and 864
examples of “high quality” data. There are, on the other hand, no examples at all of the
adjectives “poor”, “acceptable” or “high” occurring directly before “excellence” in free
online BNC data.
On the basis of BNC data, therefore, it is safe to argue that “quality” can vary much
more readily than can “excellence”, since it often associates with adjectives such as
“high” “low” and “acceptable”, while “excellence” does not. Indeed, it might well be that
it is “high quality” (not “quality” itself) which could be regarded as more or less
equivalent to “excellence’.
The argument (or intuitive feeling) that “quality” and “excellence” are virtually
synonymous probably arises from two sources. First, relatively rare examples such as
“BMW puts on a show of quality” (see previous) and, second, the fact that “quality”
can, and not infrequently does, function as an adjective (or pre-modiﬁer) and mean
EVG 127 But was there a market in Glasgow for a quality product?
HAN 45 Promote Scotch Whisky as a quality product of natural ingredients.
CEP 8738 Everton boss Howard Kendall is reluctant to allow a quality player to
Here, of course, “excellent” (an adjective) can substitute, but not “excellence” (a noun). Quality,
The distinction between “quality” as a noun and as an adjective is sometimes semantics and
overlooked by writers on quality assurance. For instance, Lomas (2002, p. 72) refers to
“the traditional notion of quality that equates it to excellence” (in which, of course, the two cultures
“excellence” and “quality” are both nouns) and then illustrates this by referring to a
Rolls Royce as “a ‘quality’ car”, although here “quality” is an adjective (or pre-modiﬁer)
and equates to “excellent”. Similarly, Barcan (1996, p. 134) cited in Anderson (2006, p. 166) 9
suggests that “quality” has shifted “from an adjective to a noun – from attribute to
commodity”. A diachronic study of usage would be needed to substantiate this, but I
suspect that in fact things worked the other way around if general, as opposed to
specialist, use of the word “quality” is considered. That is to say, the use of “quality” as
an adjective meaning “of high quality” (“a quality player”) probably entered the
language rather recently. For instance, when the Robbins Report (Robbins, 1963) –
which will be brieﬂy discussed later – employs the word “quality”, all occurrences are
Some may regard what has been said so far as a rather trivial examination of
linguistic evidence relating largely to non-specialist uses of the word “quality”. After
all, by its very nature a ﬁeld of specialism such as quality assurance is able to
acquire and deﬁne its own technical terminology, even when it co-opts words which
may mean other things to the lay person. However, I would like to point out that
the terms “quality enhancement” and “quality improvement”, which are, of course,
frequently used in scholarly texts on QA, can also be seen as providing evidence in
support of my position. Both seem somewhat awkward if “quality” means
“excellence”. True, it is possible to improve or enhance “excellence”, although not by
very much. But these two technical terms make a great deal more sense if we
recognize the fundamental variability of “quality”, and dismiss the notion that it
equates to excellence.
Instead of arguing that “quality” is “excellence” therefore, we should adopt a
short-hand deﬁnition in which the equivalent of “quality” is also something inherently
variable. Potentially the quality of teaching, research or learning resources, for
instance, can be judged to be appalling, superb or at any point between those two poles.
In most educational contexts it can be argued that “ﬁtness for purpose” is just such a
variable notion, although for research quality it is arguably not quite so apt.
Nevertheless, it is fully evident that when we speak of “research quality” we are
referring to something which can and does vary, and this is reﬂected in the descriptors
used for the (UK) 2008 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), which recognize degrees
of “originality”, “signiﬁcance” and “rigour”. Research quality does not therefore equate
to “research excellence”.
Finally in this section I would suggest that it is more appropriate to support
Doherty’s (2008) position rather than that of Williams (2004), as the two are revealed
in the previous quotations. An anonymous head of department in a UK university is
surely right when she or he says that “deﬁnitions of quality are constantly
overturned” (Morley, 2003, p. 170). Unlike Williams, therefore, I doubt that it is
possible to reach a situation where “everyone is . . . clear what quality is”, although
in the context of widespread discussion in a single institution (see “narrowing the
cultural divide”, which follows) this may be possible. The difﬁculty in reaching a
universally acceptable deﬁnition of “quality” arises because it is at one and the
QAE same time a polysemous word and, as Morley (2003) has convincingly shown, a
18,1 contested concept, with academics and quality specialists often distinctly at odds
over its meaning. Morley (2003, p. 170) argues that “quality is a discourse” and
furthermore one that is “polysemic and multi-dimensional”. Having conducted
extensive interviews with a range of subjects at various levels of seniority, Morley
(2003, p. 170) concludes that British academics have accommodated themselves to
10 this “dominant discourse” in a variety of ways:
Some members of the academy occupy a liminal position – operating within and outside
quality assurance. For some, quality assurance has provided new paradigms for thinking
about academic work and new career opportunities. For others it is about suspicion, mistrust
and the management of processes, rather than standards, with considerable wastage and
frustration involved. As a new disciplinary technology it has exacerbated old or introduced
new power relations.
There is some indication of balance here – after all, Morley concedes that some
academics have beneﬁted in career terms from the advance of quality assurance in
higher education. But there can be little doubt that in the ﬁnal sentence here she is
aligning herself with those who view quality assurance with suspicion, mistrust and
frustration, and who feel that its all-pervasiveness in university life has reduced the
autonomy of academics and called into question their professionalism. A similar
ﬁnding (for Australian academics) is reported in Anderson (2006) whose respondents
“resented the time spent on quality assurance mechanisms precisely because these
practices were ineffective in genuinely assuring quality” (p. 170). She quotes one senior
lecturer in psychology (p. 168) as saying that “lecturers ﬁnd their time, which could be
going into real teaching and other things, diverted to the paperwork of feeding the
Doherty (2008, p. 264) refers to this sort of attitude among academics when he
alludes, somewhat exasperatedly, to those who “still do not understand that QA is
something you do, not wrangle about”. However, wrangling can surely only cease – or
at least abate – once a deﬁnition of “quality” is agreed by a majority of both academics
and quality assurance professionals in a given institution through a process of wide,
inclusive debate. The deﬁnition of quality should differ somewhat for each individual
institution, in my view, since all universities have a unique mission, history and set of
As we have seen, it is often argued that those who design and require the operation
of “quality assurance mechanisms” (pro-vice chancellors (academic); deans of quality
assurance; faculty QA directors; and their respective teams of QA ofﬁcers and
auditors) belong to a different cultural group than most academics who (Morley, 2003,
Anderson, 2006) appear to be highly sceptical of the value of such mechanisms. It is
this cultural divide, which we shall consider in the next section.
Quality and the two cultures
C.P. Snow (1905-1980) is a novelist not so widely read as was the case 30 or 40 years
ago; he has gone out of fashion. However, in his day, as a holder of a doctorate in
physics, as a civil servant who advised successive British governments on scientiﬁc
projects, and as the writer of about a dozen novels, he had “intimate friends among
both scientists and writers” (Snow, 1963, p. 2). In his view “culture” consists of
“common attitudes, common standards and patterns of behaviour, common
approaches and assumptions” (p. 64) and, looking around himself in the late 1950s, he Quality,
saw (p. 4) a clear cultural divide between “literary intellectuals” and “physical semantics and
the two cultures
Literary intellectuals at one pole – at the other scientists, and as the most representative, the
physical scientists. Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension – sometimes . . .
hostility and dislike, but most of all lack of understanding.
Two groups who scarcely understand each other, because their attitudes and
assumptions are so different, and who sometimes demonstrate downright hostility
towards each other. It could just as easily be a description of the relationship between
academics and QA professionals, drawing on interview material from Morley (2003),
Anderson (2006) or Cartwright (2007). What then are the principal reasons why many
academics distrust the quality culture (or “discourse” – Morley, 2003; Kong, 2008)?
I think there are two main reasons for this instinctive distrust: ﬁrst, the quality
culture arises from a business and manufacturing setting; and second, its introduction
into higher education worldwide is associated with ”an ideological shift towards the
New Right”(Vidovich, 2002, p. 393). A great many academics – including, perhaps, a
majority of those who are educationalists – hold fundamental educational and political
beliefs, which lead them to regard the quality culture as largely or wholly negative.
Focusing largely but not exclusively on the British case, I shall, in turn, deal brieﬂy
with the origins of quality assurance and the introduction of QA into higher education,
showing how each of these plays a contributory role in fuelling academic distrust.
We may begin with the origins of “quality” as a piece of specialist terminology. As
is well known, what we understand today by terms such as “quality” and “quality
assurance” owes a great deal to pioneering work by individuals such as Joseph Juran
and William Edwards Deming (see Juran (2003); Gabor, 1992). Both Juran and Deming
were active in Japan in the early 1950s, contributing independently to the efﬁcient
reconstruction of the Japanese industrial and commercial sectors after the Second
World War. Deming is credited with training hundreds of key professionals such as
engineers, managers, and scholars in statistical methods for controlling quality in
manufacturing processes, while Juran in the 1950s delivered courses on aspects of
quality management. Their joint inﬂuence is often cited in the rise of many Japanese
companies and products, from the 1970s onwards, to the position of worldwide quality
leaders, and their ideas were taken up with enthusiasm in the USA and elsewhere
throughout the second-half of the last century.
Hence, the concept and application of quality assurance can be said to have
originated in the areas of business and manufacturing. It is perhaps still most usual
for educated members of the general public to think of QA as a set of procedures
and checks used, in a commercial and/or manufacturing setting, to ensure that
nothing goes wrong in the production of goods or the delivery of services. It was
not until the 1980s and 1990s that some of the concepts of quality assurance began
to be applied in a widespread and concerted way to the ﬁeld of education. For
example, “quality” is a word rarely used in the highly inﬂuential Robbins Report of
the early 1960s, which looked into the future of higher education in Britain. In fact,
when it does occur, it is only in a general, non-technical sense – for instance, the
report talks about “varied education of high quality” (Robbins, 1963, p. 150) and
“the quality of those who teach and learn” in educational institutions (p. 170).
QAE However, during the 1980s and 1990s the technical notion “quality” migrated into
18,1 education from business and industry (Gabor, 1992). In the case of Britain, many
sources (Salter and Tapper, 2000) cite the Jarratt Report (originating from the
erstwhile Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, or CVCP) as being a crucial
instigator of this development. Indeed, according to Salter and Tapper (2000, p. 79)
“[B]y 1995, the language of quality assurance dominated the discourse of higher
12 education governance”. The Robbins Report (1963, p. 231) had argued that “. . . an
autonomous institution should be free to establish and maintain its own standards
. . . without reference to any external authority”, but in 1995 the Secretary of State
for Education and Skills (Gillian Shephard), writing to the Chairman of CVCP about
how “quality” was to be assured in British universities, took a different position: “I
could not contemplate a solution which relied mainly on self-regulation” (Salter and
Tapper, 2000, p. 80).
We can trace the emergence of the “quality” culture in all sectors of the British
educational system to the Conservative governments of the 1980s and 1990s, with New
Labour later taking both the reins of ofﬁce and a similar stance. The language used by
politicians of both parties is often remarkably similar:
And we’re going to give every parent this Parent’s Guarantee: if you don’t think your child’s
Free School meets minimum standards, and enough of your fellow parents agree, then you
can sack the whole school management. That’s real parent power; that’s the way to drive up
standards (William Hague, as Tory Leader, speech to Conservative Party Conference, October
1999, available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/politics/468183.stm).
The best way to drive up standards is to give teachers responsibility for results, and make
them account to parents for those results. (Iain Duncan Smith, as Conservative Leader,
February 2003), available at: www.conservatives.com/tile.do?def ¼ news.story.page&obj_id
¼ 52096&speeches ¼ 1)
As you know better than most, choice and competition drive up standards in every ﬁeld of
human endeavour (Speech by Michael Howard, Leader of the Opposition, to the Confederation
of British Industry (CBI), March 2005), available at: www.michaelhowardmp.com/oldsite/
Such statements on “parent power” or “choice and competition” frequently also
mention “driving up” standards or quality. These essentially Conservative ideas – and
the language in which they are habitually expressed – appear in the 2003 White Paper,
issued six years into New Labour’s tenure of ofﬁce:
Student choice will increasingly work to drive up quality (p. 46).
The Government believes that student choice will be an increasingly important driver of
teaching quality (p. 47).
. . . student choice can only drive quality up successfully if it is underpinned by robust
information (p. 47).
. . . a very signiﬁcant step forward in helping student demand drive up quality (p. 48).
. . . make student choice a much more powerful force, and help choice drive quality (p. 84).
We might note, in passing, that “driving up” quality makes rather more sense than
“driving up” excellence.
It is, perhaps, not very surprising that many academics ﬁnd the quality culture Quality,
somewhat alien and inimical. They see it as emanating from a manufacturing setting,
and as a culture (or discourse) associated with the Conservative Party and its New
Labour imitators, with “centralised control of higher education”, and with the the two cultures
market/customer view of the sector “central to . . . New Right ideology” (Vidovich,
2002, p. 393). One or both of these factors surely plays a role in creating and sustaining
the cultural divide between academics and those actively involved in promoting and 13
operating quality assurance systems in universities.
However, there is, I think, another factor, which is more deeply rooted in the
understandings of “education” common among academics. Quality assurance
frameworks characteristically focus on inputs and outputs in the educational
process, and this is a source of unease among academics, including particularly those
whose specialist area is education itself. For instance, Turner (2004) offers strong
criticism of this kind of approach. He suggests that “systems thinking has taken a
dominant position in the development of educational systems, and in the shaping of
educational theory” (p. 161) and goes on to argue that “It has become commonplace to
look on teachers as ‘inputs’ to the educational process, and examination results as
‘outputs’” (pp. 161-2). Along with this, he claims, goes the mindset “that educational
institutions can be improved by introducing quality assurance mechanisms which
would be more appropriate in a sausage factory” (p. 162). This is a view of education,
he considers, that is “deeply rooted . . . in the factory production line” (p. 162).
Turner argues vehemently that approaches to quality assurance in education
frequently rest on an over-simpliﬁed view of the teaching and learning process. In fact,
he goes on (p. 162) to link an input-output view of education with largely discredited
behaviourist notions of learning, when he says that such a view is “part of the same
imagination which motivated an attempt to deﬁne learning in terms of stimulus and
response”, the view that “if we can manage the . . . inputs properly, we can secure
regular and predictable outcomes” (p. 162).
Turner (2004) concludes his discussion of the processes of teaching and learning by
offering a generalisation, based on his professional experience and on apparent
awareness of the beliefs of colleagues. Commenting on the mindset that particular
teacher inputs can lead to predictable learning outcomes, he says that:
Everyone who has ever taught knows that education cannot be controlled and regulated in
this way. If a hundred people attend a lecture, they will all learn something different,
depending on the experiences, which they bring with them. What is learnt is only loosely
connected to what is taught . . . (p. 162).
A somewhat similar view is offered by Knight (2002, p. 275, cited in Gibbs and
Iacovidou, 2004, p. 115) who suggests that “there is good evidence that student
achievement is related, ﬁrst and foremost, to engagement”. For Gibbs and Iacovidou
themselves (p. 115) “the experience of education . . . is one of enthusiastic
collaboration”. It may be that, in the academic culture, education (or at least
teaching and learning) tends to be regarded as a matter of personal contact and
interaction. The quality assurance culture, however, tends not to emphasise means
through this aspect of the educational experience can be captured and evaluated.
Instead, it brings with it a tight focus on outcome-based learning, which Turner and
others might well ﬁnd unhelpful. See Hussey and Smith (2002) for an interesting
discussion of learning outcomes, which raises doubts about their value.
QAE Certain aspects of what might be called “the quality culture”, then, appear to be in
18,1 disharmony with the predominant concerns of practising teachers and lecturers.
Anderson (2006, p. 171) discovered, for example, on the basis of a study of 30
academics from ten Australian universities, that in general they believed that:
. . . quality assurance mechanisms imposed an additional workload burden but actually failed
to assure quality in any meaningful way. While the academics in this study appeared
14 unreservedly committed to quality research and quality teaching, they remained unconvinced
by the forms of quality assessment employed in their universities.
Furthermore, Kong (2008, p. 8) may have put her ﬁnger on a key point when she asserts
that “quality processes are based on postulations or notions that are not open to
debate” and goes on to suggest (p. 8) that this is “fundamentally at odds with academic
Narrowing the cultural divide
Collegiality (Lucas, 2006) is a characteristic of academic life associated, in the UK, with
“old” universities, in which (in its purest form) “the power of sovereignty lies in the
collectivity of the dons” (Lucas, 2006, p. 18). Furthermore, (p. 19) collegiality “stands as
a more “humane” alternative to managerialism . . . with an emphasis on collectivism
rather than individualism and competition” In post-1992 UK universities, it can be
argued (p. 19), “management structures are . . . more common” than in pre-1992
institutions. I would like to suggest here that there are three ways through which the
cultural divide thus far discussed might perhaps narrow: an increase in collegiality; a
focus on quality enhancement as a crucial factor in quality assurance, and a shift in
attitude among those academics charged with responsibility for quality.
The current cultural divide in British universities might perhaps be bridged, if a
renewed spirit of collegiality were to emerge. To many academics in Britain – and
perhaps particularly to those working in post-1992 universities – this may seem
far-fetched. However, consultation is potentially a key factor in ensuring that agreement
and conﬁdence are promoted. For instance, the environment described by Carroll et al.
(2009, p. 26) is one in which a national body (in Oman) is at present putting in place a new
quality management system and, while so doing, consulting at every stage across the HE
sector. It is argued (p. 26) that consultation before decisions are taken “helps identify and
gain common agreement on . . . needs”; that consultation “during development helps gain
the sector’s conﬁdence in the proposed solutions”; and that consultation after decisions
are taken “helps disseminate and explain ﬁnal decisions”. This approach entails respect
for the professionalism and rights of the various institutions with which the national
body is working, a stance which should surely be replicated within universities. Those
required to manage universities must recognize the professionalism and rights of their
staff, and should regard consultation and collegiality as central to the management of
institutional quality. In other words, there should be true “participation in
decision-making” (Lucas, 2006, p. 18). It can surely only be through such participation
that academics can genuinely feel that they have part-ownership of the “quality” agenda,
and that quality assurance can become “a culture of commitment to delivering high
quality education” (Kong, 2008, p. 2) to which all subscribe.
This brings us to our second point: a greater focus on quality enhancement (or
“quality improvement”, as it is also termed, particularly in Australia). As is implied by
Kong (2008) in the previous quotation, it seems plausible that academic staff in Quality,
universities would be more positively disposed towards approaches to quality in higher semantics and
education which, rather than concentrating resources on meticulous (and perhaps
over-intrusive) checking of existing systems and practices to ensure conformity and the two cultures
maintenance of bureaucratically speciﬁed standards, emphasize continuous
improvement. For example, commenting on Australian higher education, Sachs (1994,
cited in Vidovich, 2001, p. 250) refers to what she sees as quality improvement’s 15
association with, among other things, consensual management, devolved administration,
and qualitative assessments. This she contrasts with quality assurance’s linkage to
authoritarian management, centralized administration and quantitative assessments. In
Britain during the 1990s considerable negative feeling was generated among academic
staff by what was perceived as the “heavy touch” approach of bodies such as the Higher
Education Funding Councils and the QAA when conducting quality audits and teaching
reviews. The reverberations of this discontent are evident in Morley’s (2003) survey of
the sector, and in a parallel fashion, in Anderson’s (2006) discussion of similar
phenomena in Australia. Perhaps as a reaction to the negative feedback received over the
previous decade or so from academic staff, a new focus on quality enhancement seems to
be emerging in the British higher education sector – with Scotland arguably leading the
way. This change of emphasis can be seen, for example, at university web sites such as
Manchester Metropolitan University’s or the University of Aberdeen’s or in the
work of the Scottish Higher Education Enhancement Committee. It is also evident in
the foregrounding of enhancement in the current remit of the Quality Assurance
Agency’s Quality Matters, Quality Assurance Agency (n.d.). These developments
implicitly provide grounds for guarded optimism about the possibility of improved
understanding between academics and quality assurance specialists. They also suggest
that feedback from the academic community/culture has, to an extent, inﬂuenced the
quality agenda put in place by national governments.
Finally, we should recognize (with Morley, 2003, p. 170) that “some academics occupy
a liminal position”, operating both within and outside the quality assurance discourse.
They may, for example, be Heads of Department who spend most of their time on
administration and who attend Faculty and/or University Quality Assurance Committee
meetings, but who also teach and publish occasionally. Others (such as the pro-vice
chancellors (academic); deans of quality assurance; and faculty QA directors referred to
earlier) are frequently ex-academics who are now required to exert all their energies on
management and supervision. They may (Tribus, cited in Doherty, 2008, p. 264) be
“recovering academics . . . recovering from the academic culture”, in which case they
may well agree with Doherty (p. 264) that “QA is something you do, not wrangle about”.
On the other hand, they may (like Kong, 2008, p. 8) recognize that debate is an
ineradicable feature of academic life and thought, and that academics, although arguably
sometimes preoccupied with their own narrow concerns, do, on the whole, have
highly-trained and acute minds. Their views deserve to be aired and considered
carefully. Those senior university managers and QA specialists who were formerly
lecturers have a key role to play here, since, like C.P. Snow, they are ideally placed to
understand the assumptions and concerns of both camps. In my view, they should be
more proactive in consulting with, and empathizing with, their academic colleagues.
If “quality” (or, as I would prefer, “high quality”) is to be seen as residing chieﬂy in
efﬁcient use of resources, this may not be a vision which will allow members of the
QAE academic culture to cease their “wrangling”. If, on the other hand, universities set out to
18,1 pursue high quality teaching and learning through a continuous upgrading and
expansion of their learning resources, drawing on insights drawn from current
educational research, this might be more likely to narrow the cultural divide. All staff
in a university can conceivably unite around a vision of “high quality” achieved
through a process of consultation, with progress towards achieving it fostered and
16 evaluated through the implementation of a quality cycle such as PDRI (University of
Technology Sydney, 2009).
As we have seen, recent British governments (of both parties) have espoused an
essentially neo-liberal perspective on the economy, employing “market” rhetoric
(competition, driving up standards) while seeking to shape higher education policy.
The rise of the quality culture in higher education should be seen in this context.
Furthermore, in an era of globalization, similar forces are at work worldwide, with the
spread of the quality culture arguably acting as a standardizing force across higher
education sectors internationally. The power of the academic culture to resist, re-mould
or roll back the advance of “quality” seems relatively weak. However, Luckett (2003, p.
18), writing of South Africa, optimistically foresees the creation of a new atmosphere in
which “a relationship of trust will develop in which control and ownership of the QA
process is gradually ceded by the state to . . . institutions”. Perhaps the way forward
lies not through agency monitoring of quality assurance processes and procedures, but
through a more consultative management style, and the rigorous pursuit within
individual universities of high quality as deﬁned for their speciﬁc contexts?
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Enhancement, available at: www.mmu.ac.uk/academic/examiner.php
3. See University of Aberdeen, “Quality enhancement”, available at: www.abdn.ac.uk/qe/
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About the author
Brian Poole is currently a Lecturer in English for academic purposes and for critical thinking at
National University of Singapore. He will shortly take up a post as Quality Assurance Manager
at the University of Sohar in the Sultanate of Oman. Brian Poole can be contacted at:
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