Analytic Quality Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2004-21, Analytic Quality Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 18 June, 2021 , © Lee Harvey 2004–2021.


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Fitness for purpose

core definition

Fitness for purpose equates quality with the fulfilment of a specification or stated outcomes.

explanatory context

Fitness for purpose has been a widely used approach by quality agencies. The notion derives from manufacturing industry that purportedly assesses a product against its stated purpose. The purpose may be that as determined by the manufacturer or, according to marketing departments, a purpose determined by the needs of customers.


In higher education it is debateable whether quality evaluations assess fitness for purpose against institutional specifications of purpose (as is intended by the notion of fitness for purpose) or against trans-institutional norms (that allow a degree of comparison across the sector).

analytical review

As one of the five definitions of quality, Harvey and Green, (1993) state:

Fitness for purpose sees quality as fulfilling a customer’s requirements, needs or desires. Theoretically, the customer specifies requirements. In education, fitness for purpose is usually based on the ability of an institution to fulfil its mission or a programme of study to fulfil its aims.


Campbell and Rozsnyai (2002, p. 132) define fitness for purpose as:

One of the possible criteria for establishing whether or not a unit meets quality, measured against what is seen to be the goal of the unit.


The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) (undated) defines fit for purpose as:

(Referring to information) Appropriate in terms of what the provider wants to communicate and the information needs of the intended audience.


Woodhouse (1999, pp. 29–30) notes:

fitness for purpose” is a definition of quality that allows institutions to define their purpose in their mission and objectives, so “quality” is demonstrated by achieving these. This definition allows variability in institutions, rather than forcing them to be clones of one another. This at least is the theory, but whether it is achieved depends also on the culture. For example, systems based on the United States model tend to be comfortable with very different higher education institutions, but British-based systems often have policies that tend towards the reduction of variability.


Davies and Brailsford (undated) suggest that quality is fitness for purpose:

implies that a project’s ‘purpose’ should be precisely defined and that resource should not be squandered on attempting to produce a higher quality product than is necessary. Another way of putting this is that quality is ‘meeting the customer’s requirement and no more’. In the case of courseware development in higher education, who is the ‘customer’? Is it the student who wants an effective product designed to a high standard? Or is it the project’s sponsor, who wants a lot of product in a short space of time within clearly defined cost limits?


Vlãsceanu et al., (2007, pp. 71–72) defines quality as fitness for purpose as about conformity to sectoral standards:

Quality as fitness for purpose: a concept that stresses the need to meet or conform to generally accepted standards such as those defined by an accreditation or quality assurance body, the focus being on the efficiency of the processes at work in the institution or programme in fulfilling the stated, given objectives and mission. Sometimes quality in this sense is labeled as: (i) a value for money approach owing to the (implicit) focus on how the inputs are efficiently used by the processes and mechanisms involved or (ii) the value-added approach when results are evaluated in terms of changes obtained through various educational processes (e.g., teaching and learning processes). A variant of the latter is the quality as transformation approach, which is strongly student centered. It considers quality as a transformational process within which the better a higher education institution is, the better it achieves the goal of empowering students with specific skills, knowledge, and attitudes that enable them to live and work in a knowledge society.


This definition subsumes value for money under fitness for purpose. However, efficiency criteria are not a necessary element of fitness for purpose. Harvey and Green (1993), for example, keep the two conceptual definitions separate, while accepting that all five of their definitions are interrelated. Furthermore, Vlãsceanu et al., (2004, p. 47) also subsume value-added under fitness for purpose. Again this is not a necessary element of fitness for purpose, albeit a desirable outcome of fitness-for-purpose driven quality evaluations — though rarely assessed directly. In essence, the authors fundamentally misunderstand the transformative analysis (Harvey & Green, 1993) by assuming that transformation is a variant of value added, itself covered by fitness for purpose. Transformation, on the contrary, is about change and development and value added is one possible way of identifying an aspect of the qualitative transformation, which focuses on the enhancement and empowerment of the learner or researcher. For Harvey and Knight (1996), fitness for purpose is a partial and static conceptualisation of transformation, not the other way round. In essence Harvey and Knight (1996) regard transformation as a metaconcept of quality of which fitness-for-purpose is a weak operationalisation.

associated issues

Who judges fitness?

Campbell and Rozsnyai (2002, p. 20) raise the issue of the fitness of the purpose:

A major weakness of the fitness for purpose concept is that it may seem to imply that “anything goes” in higher education so long as a purpose can be formulated for it. This weakness is more likely to be exacerbated in large and diverse higher education systems in which a wide range of “purposes” at institutional level may be identified by individual institutions, generally through their mission statements, and at more precise academic levels through the learning outcomes of particular programmes. This diversity is often further complicated in transnational and distance education (situations in which educational provision crosses borders) as there is frequently a divergence of national views between “sending” and “receiving” countries as to both “fitness” and “purpose”.

            By complementing “fitness for purpose” with a notion of “fitness of  purpose”, an evaluation can consider and challenge the comprehensiveness and relevance of purposes in order to ensure improvements.


Harvey and Green (1993) elaborated their definition of quality as fitness for purpose by addressing issues of determination of fitness:

Quality as fitness for purpose

A third approach argues that quality only has meaning in relation to the purpose of the product or service. This notion is quite remote from the idea of quality as something special, distinctive, elitist, as conferring status, or as difficult to attain. If something does the job for which it is designed, then it a quality product or service. Unlike the exceptional notion of quality, which, by definition, must be exclusive (even in the weaker standards checking approach) fitness for purpose, like ‘zero defects’, is inclusive. Every product and service has the potential to fit its purpose and thus be a quality product or service.

            Fitness for purpose has emerged as the fashionable way to harness the drive for perfection. The ultimate measure of perfection, ‘zero defects’, may be excellent as a definition of quality but runs the fatal risk of being perfectly useless. If the product does not fit its purpose then its perfection is irrelevant.

            Although straightforward in conception, ‘fitness for purpose’ is deceptive, for it raises the issue of whose purpose and how is fitness assessed? Fitness for purpose offers two alternative priorities for specifying purpose. The first puts the onus on the customer, the second locates it on the provider.

Fitness for Purpose 1 (FFP1) - Customer specification

FFP1 identifies quality in terms of the extent to which a product or service meets the specifications of the customer. The customer has requirements that become the specifications for the product and the outcome reliably matches these requirements. Thus a quality product is one that conforms to customer determined specifications.

            This approach provides a model for determining what the specification for a quality product or service should be. It is also developmental as it recognises that purposes may change over times thus requiring constant re-evaluation of the appropriateness of the specification.

            The assumption is that a quality product, in meeting the specifications is meeting customer requirements. The idea that the customer determines the specification is, however, an idealisation. In practice, customers rarely specify their individual requirements. On the contrary the producer of mass-produced products or provider of standardised services assesses what the customer is prepared to buy.

            While customers’ needs are seen as as a crucial factor in the design of a product or service they are something the producer or provider has to anticipate. Ford’s ‘everything we do is driven by you’ campaign uses a pun to exploit the inevitable differential between customer requirement and mass produced output while at the same giving the impression that ‘you’, the idealised consumer, have determined the product.

            This raises fundamental questions about the fitness-for-purpose definition of quality as ‘meeting customer requirements’. This is a problem that, for two reasons, is further exacerbated in the context of education. First, the notion of ‘customer’ is itself a tricky, indeed contentious, concept in education. Is the customer the service user (the students) or those who pay for the service (the government, the employers, parents)? Second, the customer, the student for example, is not always able, nor necessarily in a position to, specify what is required. Fitness for purpose, therefore, leaves open the question of who should define quality in education and how it should be assessed.

Fitness for Purpose 2 (FFP2) - Mission

The tricky issue of determining who are the customers of higher education and what their requirements are can be avoided, to some extent, by returning the emphasis to the institution (or to the State, for example, with the national curriculum). Quality can be then be defined in terms of the institution fulfilling stated objectives or mission.

            Quality in higher education is supposedly assessed against the self-declared mission of the university or college.


Related concepts in the commercial world are, ‘Fitness for use’ (Joseph M. Juran) where fitness is defined by the customer, which is similar to ‘must-be quality’ (Noriaki Kano and others). ‘Attractive quality’ (Noriaki Kano and others) is what the customer would love, but has not yet thought about. Supporters characterise this model more succinctly as: ‘Products and services that meet or exceed customers' expectations’.

related areas

See also

fitness of  purpose



value for money

value added


Campbell, C. & Rozsnyai, C., 2002, Quality Assurance and the Development of Course Programmes. Papers on Higher Education Regional University Network on Governance and Management of Higher Education in South East Europe Bucharest, UNESCO.

Davies, P.  and Brailsford, T., (undated), Planning, Design and Production, Quality assurance, Quality is fitness for purpose, an extract from New Frontiers of Learning (Guidelines for Multimedia Courseware Developers in Higher Education) Bio-Informatics Research Group, Department of Life Science, University of Nottingham.

Harvey, L. and Green, D., 1993, ‘Defining quality’, Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 18(1). pp. 9–34. pre-publication draft available here

Harvey, L. and Knight, P.T., 1996, Transforming Higher Education, Milton Keynes, Open University Press.

Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA), undated, Glossary, available at, accessed 3 January 2017, not available 20 June 2019.

Vlãsceanu, L.,  Grünberg, L., and Pârlea, D., 2007,  Quality Assurance and Accreditation: A Glossary of Basic Terms and Definitions ( Bucharest , UNESCO-CEPES) Revised and updated edition. ISBN 92-9069-186-7, available at, accessed 19 June 2019.

Woodhouse, D., 1999, ‘Quality and Quality Assurance' in Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), 1999, Quality and Internationalisation in Higher Education, pp. 29–44, Programme on Institutional Management in Higher Education (IMHE), Paris, OECD.

copyright Lee Harvey 2004–2021

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