The meaning of quality in education is often elusive and always context-dependent. However, a number of high-level factors influence perceptions of quality in Higher Education. Many public institutions are better endowed with physical infrastructure and academic and non-academic personnel, and therefore leads to the assumption that qualifications in the public sector are automatically of a higher quality.
The application of a profit motive also seems to impact on perceptions of quality at private higher educational institutions. Most Private Higher Educational Institutions are for-profit organisations; however, even ‘not-for-profit’ providers need profit to remain sustainable. And, in light of shrinking subsidies, there is a strong argument to be made for the fact that public institutions that do not actively generate revenue (even if arguably not ‘profit’) will simply not be sustainable either. Hence the emergence and continuous proliferation of various (semi) autonomous business schools, executive education centres and other ‘income generating’ divisions within traditional University structures.
Even within academic management, there is little consensus on the meaning of ‘quality education’ or the management processes required to deliver on it. At one extreme, there are those who believe that quality management equals compliance with a series of prescribed tasks, within set deadlines and obtaining prescribed approvals; a checklist approach. At the other end of the continuum are those who believe that quality management processes are customer (learner) focused, thus allowing for reasonable flexibility and innovation.
For many academic institutions, quality management has risen to the top of the policy agenda primarily as a matter of regulatory requirements. To be effectively internalised into the organisational fabric, a clear understanding of what constitutes quality is required. George Holmes (1993), who has written extensively on the topic, defines quality as 'the totality of features and characteristics of a product or service which bears on its ability to meet stated or implied needs'. The key question that arises is then whose needs are to be met? Slack, Chambers and Johnston (2007) offer a concise answer and define quality as ‘consistent conformance to customers’ expectations’.
The world consistently recognises that customers’ needs and expectations are dynamic and that educational providers must position themselves for innovation, which requires flexibility and continuous improvement. To provide quality and achieve consistency requires that the relevant structures are in place, including institutional policies, standard operating procedures, committee structures and terms of reference, rulebooks, checklists, and so on.
The Accreditation criteria with which institutions are required to comply when seeking accreditation for their programmes provide certain fundamental requirements that need to be in place in order for a higher education programme to be accredited. Providers respond to these criteria, at least in part, through the development of policies and procedures tailored to their institution that meet the minimum standards required. It is clear that in the conceptualisation of institutional policies and procedures institutions may differ to varying degrees. The very use of a ‘minimum standard’ system introduces the first level of variability among academic providers.
The second, probably more important, yet less obvious level of variability lies in the interpretation of policies and procedures. Interpretation can create many dilemmas: where do we draw the line between adhering to the rules versus showing empathy for the student’s situation? Must the rules apply equally to all students at all times? Should the cultural differences amongst students be taken into consideration when making academic management decisions and if so, to what extent? What defines a great facilitator? What is the provider’s responsibility to the learner and vice versa? Should learners have a say in curriculum design? What outcomes must be pursued, for whom, how and by whom? These questions are difficult to answer, and consistency remains a challenge.
To answer these and other related questions requires a quality management strategy which inspires confidence, and allows for innovation, commitment and empowerment. The very nature of education, whether it is offered through a public or private enterprise, demands that widely acclaimed quality management frameworks be carefully considered before adoption in institutions of learning.
Management literature offers many well-known approaches or frameworks for quality management and demonstrates the effectiveness of quality management systems and quality measurement tools. The goal here is not to dwell on the frontiers of academic discourse, but rather to isolate basic truths, which permeate almost all quality management systems regardless of time or place. It is hoped that by revisiting these fundamental truths, decision-makers at educational institutions can start repositioning the focus of quality education to where it belongs, namely, the student.
This article really had me thinking.