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The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
steps could be taken towards establishing a quality assurance culture which would be                        Quality,
more ...
QAE       (3) A trait or feature of personality.
18,1      (4) A degree or standard of excellence, especially a high stand...
Here, of course, “excellent” (an adjective) can substitute, but not “excellence” (a noun).              Quality,
The disti...
QAE    same time a polysemous word and, as Morley (2003) has convincingly shown, a
18,1   contested concept, with academic...
approaches and assumptions” (p. 64) and, looking around himself in the late 1950s, he                          Quality,
QAE    However, during the 1980s and 1990s the technical notion “quality” migrated into
18,1   education from business and...
It is, perhaps, not very surprising that many academics find the quality culture                   Quality,
somewhat alien ...
QAE       Certain aspects of what might be called “the quality culture”, then, appear to be in
18,1   disharmony with the ...
Kong (2008) in the previous quotation, it seems plausible that academic staff in                       Quality,
QAE    academic culture to cease their “wrangling”. If, on the other hand, universities set out to
18,1   pursue high qual...
Doherty, G. (2008), “On quality in education”, Quality Assurance in Education, Vol. 16 No. 3,                Quality,
QAE    Vidovich, L. (2002), “Quality assurance in Australian higher education: globalisation and
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Quality semantics and the two cultures 2010


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Quality semantics and the two cultures 2010

  1. 1. The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at QAE 18,1 Quality, semantics and the two cultures Brian Poole 6 National University of Singapore, CELC, Singapore Abstract 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 higher education. 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 Introduction 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 0968-4883 DOI 10.1108/09684881011015963 be further discussed later. The overall intention here is to suggest tentatively how
  2. 2. 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[1] (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 assumption. 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 are: (1) A distinguishing characteristic, property or attribute. (2) The basic character or nature of something.
  3. 3. 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 item. . FT7 447 I never use a 2X converter on the Bronica as the drop in quality is unbelievable. . 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 “excellent”: . 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 depart.
  4. 4. 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 nouns. 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
  5. 5. 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 system”. 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 priorities. 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
  6. 6. 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 scientists”: 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. 11 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).
  7. 7. 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: 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: ¼ 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: sp010305.htm 6) 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.
  8. 8. 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 semantics and 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.
  9. 9. 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 culture”. 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
  10. 10. 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[2] or the University of Aberdeen’s[3] or in the work of the Scottish Higher Education Enhancement Committee[4]. 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
  11. 11. 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? Notes 1. See British National Corpus, Oxford, available at: 2. See Manchester Metropolitan University Centre for Academic Standards and Quality Enhancement, available at: 3. See University of Aberdeen, “Quality enhancement”, available at: 4. See Scottish Higher Education Enhancement Committee, available at: www.enhancementthemes. References Anderson, G. (2006), “Assuring quality/resisting quality assurance: academics’ responses to ‘quality’ in some Australian universities”, Quality in Higher Education, Vol. 12 No. 3, pp. 161-73. Barcan, R. (1996), “The body of the (humanities) academic, or, what is an academic?”, Southern Review, Vol. 29 No. 2, pp. 128-45. Bogue, E.G. and Hall, K.B. (2003), Quality and Accountability in Higher Education, Praeger Publishers, Westport, CT. Carroll, M., Razvi, S., Goodliffe, T. and Al-Habsi, F. (2009), “Progress in developing a national quality management system for higher education in Oman”, Quality in Higher Education, Vol. 15 No. 1, pp. 17-27. Cartwright, M. (2007), “The rhetoric and reality of ‘quality’ in higher education”, Quality Assurance in Education, Vol. 15 No. 3, pp. 287-301. DES (2003), The Future of Higher Education, Cm 5735, Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, Norwich.
  12. 12. Doherty, G. (2008), “On quality in education”, Quality Assurance in Education, Vol. 16 No. 3, Quality, pp. 255-65. semantics and Gabor, A. (1992), The Man Who Discovered Quality: How W. Edwards Deming Brought the Quality Revolution to America, Penguin, New York, NY. the two cultures Gibbs, P. and Iacovidou, M. (2004), “Quality as pedagogy of confinement: is there an alternative?”, Quality Assurance in Education, Vol. 12 No. 3, pp. 113-19. Hanks, P. (Ed.) (1979), Collins’ English Dictionary, Collins, London and Glasgow. 17 Harvey, L. and Green, D. (1993), “Defining quality”, Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, Vol. 18 No. 1, pp. 9-34. Hussey, T. and Smith, P. (2002), “The trouble with learning outcomes”, Active Learning in Higher Education, Vol. 3 No. 3, pp. 220-33. Juran, J.M. (2003), Architect of Quality: The Autobiography of Dr Joseph M. Juran, McGraw-Hill, New York, NY. Knight, P.T. (2002), “Summative assessment in higher education: practices in disarray”, Studies in Higher Education, Vol. 27 No. 3, pp. 275-86. Kong, L. (2008), “Cultures of quality assurance”, Ideas on Teaching and Learning, Vol. 6, Centre for Development of Teaching and Learning, National University of Singapore, Singapore, pp. 2-10. Lomas, L. (2002), “Does the development of mass education necessarily mean the end of quality?”, Quality in Higher Education, Vol. 8 No. 1, pp. 71-9. Lucas, L. (2006), The Research Game in Academic Life, McGraw-Hill/Open University Press, Maidenhead. Luckett, K. (2003), “Tensions between ‘fitness of purpose’ and ‘fitness for purpose’: the introduction of a national quality system in South Africa”, available at: http://ahero.uwc.¼cshe&action¼viewtitle&id¼cshe_82 Morley, L. (2003), Quality and Power in Higher Education, Society for Research into Higher Education/Open University Press, Buckingham. Pirsig, R. (1974), Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Morrow, New York, NY. Poole, B. (2005), “Quality problems”, English Today, Vol. 21 No. 4, pp. 32-5. Quality Assurance Agency (n.d.), Quality Assurance Agency, Gloucester, available at: www.qaa. Robbins, L. (1963), Report of the Committee on Higher Education under the Chairmanship of Lord Robbins, Cmnd. 2154, Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, London. Sachs, J. (1994), “Strange yet compatible bedfellows: quality assurance and quality improvement”, Australian Universities Review, Vol. 371, pp. 22-5. Salter, B. and Tapper, T. (2000), “The politics of governance in higher education: the case of quality assurance”, Political Studies, Vol. 48, pp. 66-87. Snow, C.P. (1963), The Two Cultures: And a Second Look, 2nd ed., Cambridge University Press, London. Turner, D. (2004), Theory of Education, Continuum, London and New York, NY. University of Technology (2009), Planning and Quality Management at UTS, University of Technology, Sydney, available at: Vidovich, L. (2001), “That chameleon ‘quality’: the multiple and contradictory discourses of ‘quality’ policy in Australian higher education”, Discourse, Vol. 22 No. 2, pp. 249-61.
  13. 13. QAE Vidovich, L. (2002), “Quality assurance in Australian higher education: globalisation and ‘steering at a distance’”, Higher Education, Vol. 43 No. 3, pp. 391-408. 18,1 Williams, P. (2004), “Less is more”, Higher Quality, Vol. 16, p. 1. Further reading Cheng, Y.C. and Tam, W.M. (1997), “Multi-models of quality in education”, Quality Assurance in 18 Education, Vol. 5 No. 1, pp. 22-31. 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: To purchase reprints of this article please e-mail: Or visit our web site for further details: