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 22 September, 2021 , © Lee Harvey 2004–2021.


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Fitness of purpose

core definition

Fitness of purpose evaluates whether the quality-related intentions of an organisation are adequate.

explanatory context

Fitness of purpose may operate at a programme level through to the mission of the institution

There is a perception that fitness of purpose is a definition of quality. In fact, a judgement of fitness of purpose only provides a subjective basis for then subsequently assessing the quality delivered within the acceptable framework, mission or goals that constitute an acceptable purpose. Fitness of purpose is not, in itself, a judgement of, let alone definition of, quality.

analytical review

Vlasceanu et al., (2007) states:

Quality as fitness of purpose: a concept that focuses on the defined objectives and mission of the institution or programme with no check of the fitness of the processes themselves in regard to any external objectives or expectations. Fitness of purpose evaluates whether the quality-related intentions of an organization are adequate. Within this approach, one may distinguish alternative approaches developed in the 1990s: (i) quality as threshold whereby certain norms and criteria are set, which any programme or institution has to reach to be considered to be of quality. In many European higher education systems, a variant defining quality as a basic standard, closely linked to accreditation, is used. In this case, the starting point is the specification of a set of minimum standards to be met by an institution or programme and to generate the basis for the development of quality improvement mechanisms; (ii) quality as consumer satisfaction: quality perceived as closely linked to the growing importance of market forces in higher education, that focuses on the importance of the external expectations of consumers (students, families, society at large) and other stakeholders.


The UK Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA, 1999) stated:

The Agency will use the benchmarking statements in the course of review at subject level. They will be a means of determining the fitness of purpose of individual programmes. Accordingly, they should enable broadly comparable standards of attainment to be identified.

This takes them away from the initial notion of fitness for quality that proposed to assess each institution against its own mission.


In South Africa, The National Working Group on the Restructuring of the Higher Education System (2002):

assessed 'fitness of purpose' against a set of performance indicators and benchmarks, which confirmed that in critical respects, in particular, in relation to graduation rates, research outputs, staff qualifications and financial stability, higher education institutions were well-below the benchmarks required for a healthy and well-functioning system.

Referring to quality schools in Namibia, Tjivikua (2010) states

Fitness of purpose means that the stated goals or aims accord with the universal task or purpose of the school.


Lester, 1995, in reviewing self-managed learning noted that:

The limitation of fitness for purpose is that it operates within the boundaries set by the purpose itself, and so is totally dependent on how well the latter has been framed or constructed. In practical terms, this can often translate to blinkered thinking, 'firefighting', or pursuing aims regardless of their wider consequences, as well as offering scope for unethical, unjust or criminal behaviour. While critical, lateral and creative thinking can all be employed within these bounds, learning is ultimately limited because the whole learning system is controlled by the purpose and how it has been framed; fitness for purpose is essentially a single-loop test of validity which in itself has no ethical, moral or spiritual dimension, but can be as narrowly pragmatic or instrumental as the learner wants it to be.

            To move beyond this limitation points to considering the fitness of the purpose, or how well it has been framed in terms of wider contexts and issues. Fitness of purpose represents a double- or multiple-loop test of validity, as it asks the learner to consider the congruence of his or her objectives in broader contexts and question the assumptions on which they are based: effectively, move out of the logic or frame or reference in which the purpose is based, and question its congruence in a wider context. Clearly this can be a process of many loops or levels as the learner considers successively bigger pictures and wider perspectives, and identifies and questions assumptions embedded in both the purpose itself and the theories and actions associated with it. Fitness of purpose is still based within a personal knowledge epistemology, as it avoids imposing external definitions of congruence and asks the learner to consider assumptions reflexively, making judgements of value and exercising wisdom. However, it has moved from within-frame, single-loop thinking to a without-frame, double- or multiple- loop approach which is unbounded by predefined frameworks and where learning is ultimately unlimited. It respects the learner?'s map of the world, but enables the map to be extended and redrawn, including in previously unexplored dimensions.

associated issues

related areas

See also

fitness for purpose



value for money

value added


Lester, S., 1995, 'Assessing the self-managing learner: a contradiction in terms?' November,, not available at this address 10 March 2011.

National Working Group on the Restructuring of the Higher Education System Press Statement on the Report of the National Working Group on the Restructuring of the Higher Education System by the Chairperson, Mr Saki Macozoma, Cape Town, Monday 11 February, 2002,, not available at this address 10 March 2011.

Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA), 1999, 'Subject benchmarking: brief for benchmarking groups', Higher Quality, 5, May 1999.

Tjivikua, U.C., 2010, An investigation of the Principal's leadership role in a successful rural school in Namibia, MA Dissertation, Rhodes University, available at, accessed 17 July 2012, page not available 3 January 2017..

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.

copyright Lee Harvey 2004–2021

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