Analytic Quality Glossary

 

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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2004–14, Analytic Quality Glossary, Quality Research International, http://www.qualityresearchinternational.com/glossary/

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 12 July, 2014 , © Lee Harvey 2004–14.

 

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Quality


core definition

Quality is

1. (n) the embodiment of the essential nature of a person, collective, object, action, process or organisation.

2. (adj) means high grade or high status (as in a quality performance).

3. a shorthand, in higher education, for quality evaluation processes.


explanatory context

Quality is an elusive term, as many people have argued, for example,  ‘Quality is notoriously elusive of prescription, and no easier even to describe and discuss than deliver in practice’ (Gibson, 1986). It has several variants as a dictionary term (see below) and has been constructed in a wide variety of ways when linked to evaluation of higher education.

 

There are some people who suggest that quality, in relation to higher education, is too complex to define. However, they still want to measure this indefinable concept. There have been those who imply (or even explicitly state) that quality is something one knows when one sees it or experiences. This, though, defines quality in terms of an individual’s implicit subjective criteria.

 

Quality (1) is outlined below, both as a generic term and as one specifically linked to the monitoring  of higher education.

 

Quality (2) is an implicit usage as to say a ‘quality product’ implies high quality (thus desirable). However, the forgoing is a tautological statement in that every product has a quality. In practice, to imply other than high quality, quality itself is prefixed as in ‘low-quality product’, ‘inferior-quality product’’.

 

Quality (3) arises when those in higher education talk about ‘quality visits’, ‘preparing for quality’, ‘the quality agency’ or sometimes when used alone as in ‘quality is a burden’ or ‘quality takes time out from the real job of teaching’ — meaning that quality evaluation processes are burdensome or time consuming.

 

Quality should also be distinguished from qualities, which is the ostensive expression of attributes rather than an essential embodiment of character.

 

Quality issues in higher education are also closely related to issues of standards. In debates about the nature and functioning of higher education, there is considerable overlap between the concepts of ‘quality’ and ‘standards’. However, quality and standards are not the same. ‘Standards’ are specified and usually measurable outcome indicators that are used for comparative purposes.


analytical review

Dictionary definitions of quality (1) as a noun include:

An essential and distinguishing attribute of something or someone. (WordNet Dictionary)

 

The condition of being of such and such a sort as distinguished from others; nature or character relatively considered, as of goods; character; sort; rank. (Websters)

 

The state or condition of a person (Legal dictionary)

 

A degree or grade of excellence or worth; “the quality of students has risen”. Synonym: calibre (WordNet Dictionary)

 

That which makes, or helps to make, anything such as it is; anything belonging to a subject, or predicable of it; distinguishing property, characteristic, or attribute; peculiar power, capacity, or virtue; distinctive trait; as, the tones of a flute differ from those of a violin in quality; the great quality of a statesman. (Websters)

 

There are some specific meanings, somewhat peripheral to higher education, including:

Superior birth or station; high rank; elevated character. Hence ‘The quality’ those of high rank or station, as distinguished from the masses, or common people; the nobility; the gentry. (Websters)

In music, quality refers primarily to the timbre, but also dynamics and musical texture, of a section or piece. (Websters):

Quality – (music) the distinctive property of a complex sound (a voice or noise or musical sound); “the timbre of her soprano was rich and lovely”.

Synonyms: timbre, tone (WordNet Dictionary)

 

Quality – (music) the distinctive property of a complex sound (a voice or noise or musical sound); “the timbre of her soprano was rich and lovely”.

Synonyms: timbre, tone (WordNet Dictionary)

 

Special or temporary character; profession; occupation; assumed or asserted rank, part, or position: as in: I made that inquiry in quality of an antiquary — Gray. (meaning: I made that inquiry adopting the role of an antiquary).

 

Quality binding: a kind of worsted tape used in Scotland for binding carpets, and the like.

 

Quality (2) as an adjective is defined as:

quality - of superior grade; “quality paper”; “choice wines”; “prime beef”; “prize carnations”; “select peaches”

Synonyms: choice, prize, select, prime

quality - of high social status; “people of quality”; “a quality family” (WordNet Dictionary)

 

Quality in higher education has many variants. These definitions of quality in higher education will be outlined here but explored in more detail in linked entries.

 

Harvey and Green (1993) in their pioneering paper explored the nature and usage of quality in relation to higher education:

Quality is often referred to as a relative concept. There are two senses in which quality is relative. First, quality is relative to the user of the term and the circumstances in which it is invoked. It means different things to different people, indeed the same person may adopt different conceptualisations at different moments. This raises the issue of ‘whose quality?’. There are a variety of ‘stakeholders’ in higher education including students, employers, teaching and non-teaching staff, government and its funding agencies, accreditors, validators, auditors, and assessors (including professional bodies) (Burrows and Harvey, 1992). Each have a different perspective on quality. This is not a different perspective on the same thing but different perspectives on different things with the same label.

Second, is the ‘benchmark’ relativism of quality. In some views, quality is seen in terms of absolutes. There is the uncompromising, self evident, absolute of quality (or ‘apodictic’ as Husserl (1969) calls it). ‘As an absolute [quality] is similar in nature to truth and beauty. It is an ideal with which there can be no compromise ‘(Sallis and Hingley, 1991, p. 3). In other views, quality is judged in terms of absolute thresholds that have to be exceeded to obtain a quality rating (for example, the output has to meet a pre-determined national standard). In other conceptualisations, however, there is no threshold by which quality is judged, rather quality is relative to the ‘processes’ that result in the desired outcomes. If, for example, the product or service consistently meets its maker’s claims for it then a product has quality, irrespective of any absolute threshold. Thus, some conceptualisations of quality are rather more ‘absolutist’ than others.

 

Rather than try to define one notion of quality, Harvey and Green (1993) argued that they could be ‘grouped into five discrete but interrelated ways of thinking about quality’. Harvey (1995) provides the following brief overview of the five categories:

The exceptional view [of quality] sees quality as something special. Traditionally, quality refers to something distinctive and élitist, and, in educational terms is linked to notions of excellence, of ‘high quality’ unattainable by most.

          Quality as perfection sees quality as a consistent or flawless outcome. In a sense it ‘democratises’ the notion of quality and if consistency can be achieved then quality can be attained by all.

       Quality as fitness for purpose sees quality in terms of 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.

       Quality as value for money sees quality in terms of return on investment. If the same outcome can be achieved at a lower cost, or a better outcome can be achieved at the same cost, then the ‘customer’ has a quality product or service. The growing tendency for governments to require accountability from higher education reflects a value-for-money approach. Increasingly students require value-for-money for the increasing cost to them of higher education. 

       Quality as transformation is a classic notion of quality that sees it in terms of change from one state to another. In educational terms, transformation refers to the enhancement and empowerment of students or the development of knew knowledge.

 

Campbell and Rozsnyai (2002, pp.19–23) discuss the concepts of quality as follows:

There are many different understandings of the term, quality, often reflecting the interests of different constituencies or stakeholders in higher education. Thus, quality is a multidimensional and often a subjective concept…. Conceptions of quality were categorized by Harvey and Green (1993), and were elaborated in the PHARE Manual of Quality Assurance: Procedures and Practices (1998). They include the following:

Quality as excellence. This definition is considered to be the traditional academic view that holds as its goal to be the best.

Quality as “zero errors”. The idea of “zero errors” is defined most easily in mass industry in which product specifications can be established in detail, and standardized measurements of uniform products can show conformity to them. As the “products” of higher education, the graduates, are not expected to be identical, this view is not always considered to be applicable to higher education.

Quality as “fitness for purpose”. This view requires that the product or service meet a customer’s needs, requirements, or desires. Learners (students) and prospective learners, those who fund higher education, the academic community, government, and society at large are to a greater or lesser extent all clients or users of higher education but may have very different views of both “purpose” and “fitness”….

Quality as threshold. Defining a threshold for quality means setting certain norms and criteria. Any programme, department, or institution, which reaches these norms and criteria, is deemed to be of quality….

Quality as value for money. The notion of accountability is central to this definition of quality …

Quality as enhancement or improvement. This concept emphasizes the pursuit of continuous improvement and is predicated on the notion that achieving quality is central to the academic ethos and that it is academics themselves who know best what quality is at any point in time. Disadvantages of this concept are that it is difficult to “measure” improvement and that the evidence of improvement may not be easily discernible to the outside world.

     Some of these concepts of quality still hold true especially when explicit quality assurance and accreditation procedures are being developed and introduced for the first time either at system or at institutional level. But, notions of quality are evolving or merging, either as the result of the changing context in which higher education institutions are operating in some countries, or as a result of growing expertise within higher education systems and institutions in devising their own concepts of quality and models of evaluation and quality management. Mismatches between the requirements of the external quality assurance agency and institutional approaches to quality can be a cause of tension in relations.

 

The UNESCO definition (Vlãsceanu et al., 2007, pp 70–73) is lengthy (and edited here with additional extracts included in linked entries), it states:

Quality (Academic): Quality in higher education is a multi-dimensional, multi-level, and dynamic concept that relates to the contextual settings of an educational model, to the institutional mission and objectives, as well as to specific standards within a given system, institution, programme, or discipline. Quality may thus take different meanings depending on: (i) the understandings of various interests of different constituencies or stakeholders in higher education (quality requirements set by student/university discipline/labour market/society/ government); (ii) its references: inputs, processes, outputs, missions, objectives, etc.; (iii) the attributes or characteristics of the academic world which are worth evaluating; and (iv) the historical period in the development of higher education.

A wide spectrum of definitions of academic quality has been used:

Quality as excellence: a traditional, élitist academic view, according to which only the best standards of excellence (usually meaning a high level of difficulty and of complexity of a programme, the seriousness of the student testing procedures, etc.) are understood as revealing true academic quality.

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….

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….

Quality as enhancement or improvement: focusing on the continuous search for permanent improvement, stressing the responsibility of the higher education institution to make the best use of its institutional autonomy and freedom. Achieving quality is central to the academic ethos and to the idea that academics themselves know best what quality is.

Each approach has advantages and disadvantages, being more or less suitable for a specific period of time and/or national context. In terms of evolution, there are permanent movement and oscillations between relative versus absolute, internal versus externally oriented, and basic versus more advanced and sophisticated notions of quality. However, common to all of these quality approaches is the integration of the following elements: (i) the guaranteed realization of minimal standards and benchmarks; (ii) the capacity to set the objectives in a diversifying context and to achieve them with the given input and context variables; (iii) the ability to satisfy the demands and expectations of direct and indirect consumers and stakeholders; (iv) the drive towards excellence.

 

Council For Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) 2001defines quality thus:

Quality: Refers to “fitness for purpose”—meeting or conforming to generally accepted standards as defined by an accrediting or quality assurance body. (See also criteria, subject benchmark.)

 

Universities UK (UUK) 2008 state:

Academic ‘quality’ describes the effectiveness of the learning experience provided by universities to their students, i.e. the appropriateness and effectiveness of learning, teaching, assessment and support opportunities provided to assist students achieve their learning objectives. (UUK, 2008, p. 23 note 1)

Doherty-Delorme and Shaker (2001, p. 8) define quality as excellence:

We have defined quality as the degree of excellence of the entire educational experience. A high quality education depends on the provincial and federal governments’ commitment to fostering a well-rounded educational experience and environment. In part, this includes: the quality of student life; the adequacy of university or college finances; the breadth of disciplines and modes of learning offered; and student access to tenured faculty.

 

The ISO8402 definition is a version of quality as fitness for purpose, viz. quality as satisfying needs:

Quality: The totality of features and characteristics of a product or service that bear on its ability to satisfy stated or implied needs. Not to be mistaken for “degree of excellence” or “fitness for use” which meet only part of the definition. (ISO8402).

 

The Tempus (2001) definition is similar:

Quality – the totality of an entity’s properties which make it capable of satisfying an expressed or hypothetic need, that is, acceptability or suitability for a given purpose.

A view that sees quality as satisfying hypothetical needs shifts the emphasis back to the producer who has carte blanche to produce a product or service and then try and create a need.

 

Burrows and Harvey (1992) in reviewing the early literature on quality in higher education had also identified what they called the ‘pragmatic definition of quality in higher education’:

Given the difficulties in defining quality in higher education, some have opted out of trying to find an underlying theory or definition (Dochy et al.,1990; Moodie 1986). Vroeijenstijn (1991) says 'it is a waste of time to try to define Quality'. The basis of this argument is that quality is a relative concept, that different interest groups or 'stakeholders' in higher education have different priorities and their focus of attention may be different…. For example, the focus of attention for students and lecturers might be on the process of education while the focus of employers might be on the outputs of higher education. It is not possible, therefore, to talk about quality as a unitary concept, quality must be defined in terms of a range of qualities, with recognition that an institution may be of high quality in relation to one factor but low quality in relation to another.

The best that can be achieved is to define as clearly as possible the criteria that each stakeholder uses when judging quality and for these competing views to be taken into account when assessments of quality are undertaken.

 


In their study of how quality is perceived in academic departments, Houston et al. (2008, p. 216–7) report:

Quality in Teaching. Quality was defined predominantly in relation to the value added to or gained by students. Almost half the staff focused most immediately on the ability of graduates to perform in the workforce: the threshold for quality of teaching outcomes is employability of graduates. Two extended their definitions to include positive employer feedback as the measure of quality.

Quality Research. The definitions and perspectives of quality presented by participants encompassed both research as output of new knowledge and quality as peer approval as well as research as problem solving and quality as satisfied research clients. A different perspective emphasised research as a collective learning process and quality as ‘groups of people who are enthusiastic positive and happy … working well together and as a result of that good outcomes of research come’ (Ac6). The most commonly expressed view was that research is solving problems, quality research is research that has been competently handled and shows significant benefit to the customers of that research and the measure of quality is ‘how useful or otherwise our research is to political or industrial customers’ (Ac1).


Van Kemenade, Pupius and Hardjono wrote:

What is quality? Many authors have been engaged in the definition of quality. Garvin (1984) discerned five approaches: the transcendental approach; the product-oriented approach; the customer-oriented approach; the manufacturing-oriented approach; and the value-for-money approach. In the transcendent approach quality is absolute and can be objectively judged. Quality is what is indisputably the best, the quality without a name. Vinkenburg (1985) called it the ‘approach from the ideal image’. Often Pirsig is cited in this respect: ‘Quality is neither mind nor matter, but a third entity independent of the two….even though Quality cannot be defined, you know what it is’ (Pirsig, 1974). Lundgren (1983) transferred this to education: ‘But what is quality of education? There is probably no answer to that question as there is no simple answer to the question: “What is life?”. Garvin is little used in education. Many academics did not find it easy to translate this to education. What is the product, the customer, the manufacturing process in a university? One of the most cited articles on quality in higher education was written by Harvey and Green (1993) under the title ‘Defining quality’. Also Harvey and Green stated that quality is a slippery concept. They chose to group the differing conceptualizations of quality into five interrelated concepts of quality. The authors stated that quality can be viewed as exceptional, as perfection (or consistency), as fitness for purpose, as value for money and as transformative. Especially the last definition does more justice to education as a process wherein learners are the centre of the action: they get the added value, are the added value, transform. (Van Kemenade, Pupius and Hardjono, 2008, p. 176)

Ramírez (2013) suggests two other aspects of quality that have been evident in the works of Harvey, Newton, Barrow and Stensaker among others; these are the political and the symbolic:

In summary, a political perspective for the study of quality in higher education recognises that power struggles are part of quality activities: from the development of policies to the everyday implementation of quality management. This perspective also acknowledges that different stakeholders have competing interests. As a result, studying quality in higher education from a political perspective requires paying attention to how quality influences power distribution within universities (micro-politics) and also the sources of different agendas and interests in the shaping of national and international quality assurance policies....

The lack of consensus about definitions of quality and the multiplicity of stakeholders involved in defining quality open up the possibility of multiple and conflicting interpretations. This situation opens the door for a significant amount of symbolic activity. Even though it is loosely defined, quality is a fashionable concept (Stensaker, 2000; Stensaker, 2007). Symbolic assumptions about organisation emphasise the importance of culture, symbols, rituals and analogies that are used to make sense of ambiguous situations (Bolman, 2008). Symbolic models have gained some acceptance as a reaction to the excessive emphasis on rationality that technical approaches propose (Berger & Milem, 2000).
The symbolic perspective for the study of quality recognises that quality in general, as well as specific technologies like total quality management, have become higher education fads (Birnbaum & Deshotels, 1999; Birnbaum, 2000; Stensaker, 2007) and that symbolic compliance has turned out to be a common modus operandi of universities to maintain funding or to avoid negative consequences. From a symbolic perspective, participation in quality initiatives involves a certain level of performativity because members of the organisations under review recreate themselves and showcase those aspects that suggest compliance with the process (Barrow, 1999). However, symbolic perspectives for the study of quality should not be confused with the cynical view that all quality activities are rehearsed make believe. Conceptualising quality and accountability both as discourses and symbols, as Harvey and Askling (2003) proposed, has serious intellectual implications. Symbolic interactionism, for instance, has made a significant impact in the study of culture. Symbolic interactionism attends to the interactions of individuals within a group, puts individual agency centre stage and proposes that reality is defined socially (Charon, 1985; Denzin 1992). From such perspective, symbols are ‘social, meaningful and significant’ (Charon, 1985, p. 40). Consequently, the analysis of quality from a symbolic perspective would entail exploring different meaning in context, comparing and contrasting perspectives of different stakeholders. Once again, stakeholder-dependent definitions of quality (Harvey & Green, 1993; Newton, 2010) have implications beyond the technical-rational perspective.
The existing literature that utilises a symbolic perspective for the study of quality points out the fashion and fad-like nature of quality endeavours (Stensaker, 1998, 2003, 2007; Birnbaum & Deshotels, 1999; Birnbaum, 2000). Legitimacy is one of the central themes of the symbolic dimension of quality. Quality assurance practices are important because they grant participant institutions a sense of legitimacy (Rhoades & Sporn, 2002). Stensaker (2007) and Barrow (1999), for example, have described quality management as an intricate process by which universities or subunits of universities represent themselves in the best light possible, according to their own interpretation of quality standards established, whether or not such image represents their daily reality. As a result, metaphors of quality processes from a symbolic perspective tend to emphasise performativity. These ideas are important for understanding quality because they emphasise the non-rational elements of human activity and shed light on the symbolic and cultural aspects of quality.

Symbolic perspectives on quality hold great potential for research amidst those scholars who are increasingly open to entertain post-structural points of view or at least depart from technical-rational perspectives. Nonetheless, symbolic perspectives of quality are not compatible only with interpretive epistemological notions of quality; critical-dialectical perspectives on quality (Harvey, 2007) highlight the significance of the social context that both enables and constrains interpretation. The symbolic perspective on quality assurance holds great analytical potential despite the relatively little attention this perspective has received. The symbolic dimension evidences that there is so much of human activity that rationality cannot explain and, therefore, is worthy of further exploration. (Ramírez, 2013, pp. 10–11)


associated issues

Metaconcept

Harvey and Knight (1996) argued that quality as transformation was a metaconcept of quality and that other definitions were partial indicators of the transformation process at the heart of quality. That specifically, in the context of higher education, quality is fundamentally about development and improvement and that transformative approach embodies that. Excellence, consistency/perfection fitness for purpose and value for money are static state evaluations, the latter prioritising accountability over improvement. The ISO8402 definition above hints at the partiality of excellence and fitness definitions.

 

A conceptual framework

Kalayci et al. (2012) outlined a framework, rather than a single definition, for conceptualising quality in higher education:

Garvin (1984) defined five approaches to quality: the transcendental approach; the product-oriented approach; the customer-oriented approach; the manufacturing-oriented approach; and the value for money approach. However, given the unique context that is higher education, Garvin’s approaches that focus on the customer, product, processes and manufacturing are not readily transferable to higher education. Harvey and Green (1993) defined five interrelated concepts of quality: exceptional; perfection (or consistency); fitness for purpose; value for money; and transformation. More recently, with reference to a study by Beck and Cowan (1996), Kemenade et al. (2008) defined the concept of quality using four constituents: object; standard; subject; and values. Saarinen (2010, p. 57) usefully summarises the preceding literature as follows:

In short, the quality discourses of the 1980s and 1990s reflect the various and ambiguous but often accountability-related demands of the period. By the turn of the millennium, quality was generally taken for granted and not particularly defined or questioned. With the Bologna process, the uses of quality have reached a kind of technical level, as it refers to quality assurance techniques.

A related study in this area was conducted by Watty (2006). Using a postal survey as the research instrument, Watty analysed the responses from over 230 accounting academics from 37 Australian universities, to identify how accounting academics viewed quality. The organising framework for this analysis was based on four of the five perspectives of quality identified by Harvey and Green (1993). The perspective omitted from the survey was quality as perfection (or consistency). Lomas (2002) applied a modified framework using four definitions of quality adapted from Harvey and Green’s (1993) five-category model. Like Johnston (1994) and Chalkley (1994), the category omitted was perfection/consistency. Lomas (2002) justified the omission on the basis that perfection, as defined by Harvey and Green (1993), is about flawless consistency of a product or service: a definition akin to that employed using a total quality management framework of zero defects. Clearly, he argued, higher education is not in the business of producing like-minded, homogeneous graduates.Vidovich and Currie (1998) referred to the Harvey and Green framework in their discussion of the changing accountability requirements and autonomy of academics in Australia. Further, Watty (2003) used the framework in a discussion of the potential for conflict between academics and other stakeholders in higher education, where disparate views of quality are evident.

From a discipline perspective, Clouder (2000) referred to Harvey and Green’s ‘fitness for purpose’ definition in a discussion of reflective practice in physiotherapy education. Also, Johnson (1994) and Chalkley (1994, 1998) referred to the five categories when presenting modified frameworks in their discussion of geography and quality in higher education. The foregoing are examples of the wide use of Harvey and Green’s (1993) framework in the quality in higher education literature and provide support for this framework as the basis for data collection and analyses in this current research. The four potentially overlapping dimensions that define quality and are used in this research are: (1) excellence/exceptional; (2) fitness for purpose; (3) value for money; and (4) transformation.


related areas

See also

evaluation

excellence

fitness for purpose

perfection

qualities

standards

transformation

value added

value for money


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copyright Lee Harvey 2004–14



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