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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core definition

Rationale in the context of quality in higher education refers to the reasons or purposes for the etsablishment of quality assurance processes.

explanatory context

Rationale, of course, has a wider general meaning: viz. the reason or logical basis for a decision, action, belief or process.

Rationale is often conflated with the purposes of quality assurance.

Rationale differs from purpose, objective or aim although the terms are often used in overlapping ways. Essentially, rationale provides the legitimation for the introduction of the process (be it a quality process or an evaluation or monitoring of quality). This differs from purpose, which may be to improve research productivity, widen participation, encourage new teaching approaches. Thus rationale tends to be broader, such as accountability, control or improvement. Clearly these overlap with the rather more specific nat ure of purposes.

analytical review

It is difficult to find any definitions of rationale or purpose as applied to quality in higher education. Most accounts outline one or more purposes.

Harvey in various papers, for example, decribes the fourfold purposes of quality assurance: compliance, accountability, control and improvement. These he also sometimes refers to as the rationale for quality processes.

Rosa et al. (2012) maintain that assuring or assessing quality in higher education has five main purposes: communication, motivation, control, improvement and innovation. They write:

Purposes of quality assessment
...purposes to assess quality tend to be seen as dichotomous: accountability versus improvement (Vroeijenstijn, 1995; Westerheijden, Stensaker & Rosa, 2007) but these can be further elaborated upon. Not only can these two purposes be balanced in the same quality assessment system, it is also possible to discern other purposes for assessing quality in higher education. Harvey and Newton (2007), on the one hand, refer to the illusory tension between ‘improvement’ and ‘accountability’ (because there are other purposes of quality processes) and, on the other hand, to the fact that ‘improvement and accountability are not two related dimensions of quality, rather they are distinct’ and separate dimensions (Harvey & Newton, 2007, p. 232).
In fact, the literature on higher education quality assurance includes papers that discuss the goals and purposes for implementing quality assurance systems and mechanisms in higher education systems and institutions (Newton, 2000; Laughton, 2003; Westerheijden et al., 2007; Liu & Rosa, 2008; Langfeldt et al., 2010); that are not all about improvement or accountability. Other intentions were in fact described as being possible reasons behind the establishment of those systems, such as control, compliance, information, enhancement or transformation (Harvey & Newton, 2007). In trying to systematise all these different intentions and see the degree of support they would get from Portuguese academics, the organisational performance literature was called upon. This literature has, for a long time now, studied the purposes organisations may have for assessing quality, namely communication, motivation, control and improvement (Johnston & Clark, 2008). In this article it is argued that to these four purposes innovation should be added, translating the ideas behind the quality enhancement movement with an emphasis on student support and staff development (Sarrico, 2010; Sarrico & Rosa, 2010).


Langfeldt et al. (2010, p. 391) state that there are various purposes for quality assurance activities:

(1) ensuring that higher education institutions, their procedures or their specific study programmes fulfil required standards; (2) as basis for assigning institutional or programme accreditations; (3) for closing down substandard programmes; and (4) for informing potential students and other stakeholders about the quality of
institutions and education

In the South African context the rationale for quality assurance was linked to wider issues of political transformation:

The distinctive features of the South African national quality assurance system relate to the explicit alignment with transformation objectives. “From the outset, the rationale and objectives for QA were already uniquely tied to the post-transition project of large-scale social and economic reconstruction and to an explicit transformation agenda in higher education” (Singh and Naidoo, quoted in Luckett, 2005: 32). (Botha et al., 2007)

Knight and de Wit (1995) also discuss rationale in relation to internationalisation. They identify four first-level categories of rationale: political, economic, academic and cultural/social.

The reasons to internationalise from a political point of view are perhaps more relevant to a national perspective than an institutional perspective. Historically, international education was seen as a beneficial tool for foreign policy especially (p.17 Knight 1999) with respect to national security and peace among nations. …. Cultural, scientific and educational exchanges between countries are often justified as a way to keep communication and diplomatic relations active. However, there is a growing trend to see education in terms of an export product rather than a cultural agreement. …The economic rationale has increasing importance and relevance. As a result of the globalisation of the economy, a growing interdependence among nations and the information revolution, countries are focusing on their economic, scientific and technological competitiveness. …At the institutional level, the economic motive or market orientation is becoming more prevalent as well. Rationalisation of higher education systems and deep cuts in higher education budgets have made institutions look for alternative sources of funds. Many are looking to international markets for the export of products and services as an important revenue generating activity.

Woodhouse (1999) refers to the rationales for external quality review, which are very close to (unattributed) Harvey and Kinght's(1996) examination of delegated accountability :

The specific purposes of EQR suggested by the above discussion are embedded in different rationales in different places. As a broad-brush categorisation, EQR in the United States (accreditation) was set up by the institutions themselves to permit an informed response to the transfer of students and the admission to graduate programmes across a large and diverse country. In mainland western Europe, governments have until recently tended to micro-manage higher education institutions, but have now backed off in return for the submission of the institutions to EQR regimes. In the United Kingdom, the move has been in the opposite direction, with hitherto highly independent institutions being brought under multiple EQR regimes. In eastern Europe, South America and to some extent in Africa a major impetus for EQR has been the need to handle a proliferating private sector; and in Asia, EQR is bringing some order to very large higher education systems.

associated issues

Rosa et al. (2012) remind us that:

Thune (1996) argued that there are obvious advantages in having an external, systematic dimension for quality assurance (the accountability purpose) for it ensures impartiality, credibility, authority, comprehensiveness, consistency and transparency. He contended, though, that the ‘basis for success is the extent to which a linkage can be made to aspects characteristic of internal institution-based quality improvement, that is, trust, commitment and understanding’ (Thune, 1996, p. 31).

related areas

See also








Botha et al., 2007. Quality Assurance: Coming of Age Lessons from the Past and Strategies for the Future, INQAAHE papers Outcomes and Theory of Quality Assurance, Toronto, available at, accessed 6 September 2012 (loads slowly as is a pdf of the entire set of papers from the Conference; the Botha paper is the second one in the compilation), still available 10 January 2017.

Harvey, L. &  Knight, P.,1996, Transforming Higher Education (Buckingham, Open University Press).

Harvey, L. & Newton, J., 2007, ‘Transforming quality evaluation: moving on’, in Westerheijden, D.F., Stensaker, B. & Rosa, M.J. (Eds.), Quality Assurance in
Higher Education: Trends in regulation, translation and transformation
(Dordrecht, Springer).

Johnston, R. & Clark, G., 2008, Service Operations Management (3rd edn.) (Harlow, FT Prentice Hall).

Knight, J. and de Wit, H., 1995, “Strategies for Internationalisation of Higher Education: Historical and Conceptual Perpectives”, in de Wit, H.(ed.), Strategies for Internationalisation of Higher Education – A Comparative Study of Australia, Canada, Europe and the United States of America, Amsterdam, European Association for International Education.

Langfeldt, L., Stensaker, B., Harvey, L., Huisman, J. & Westerheijden, D., 2010, ‘The role of peer review in Norwegian quality assurance: potential consequences
for excellence and diversity’, Higher Education, 59(4), pp. 391–405.

Laughton, D., 2003, ‘Why was the QAA approach to teaching quality assessment rejected by academics in UK HE?’, Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 28(3), pp. 309–21.

Liu, S. & Rosa, M.J., 2008, ‘Quality assessment of undergraduate education in China: a policy analysis’, Higher Education Management and Policy, 20(3), pp. 79–96.

Luckett, K. M 2005. A Critical Policy Analysis of the Proposed National Quality Assurance System for South African Higher Education in The Decade Ahead: Challenges for Quality Assurance in South African Higher Education, Pretoria, South African Universities Vice-chancellors Association.

Newton, J., 2000, ‘Feeding the beast or improving quality? Academics’ perceptions of quality assurance and quality monitoring’, Quality in Higher Education, 6(2),
pp. 153–62.

Rosa, M.J, Sarrico, C.S and Amaral, A., 2012, 'Academics’ perceptions on the purposes of quality assessment', Quality in Higher Education, 18(3).

Sarrico, C.S., 2010a, ‘On performance in higher education: towards performance governance’, Tertiary Education and Management, 16(2), pp. 145–58.

Sarrico, C.S. & Rosa, M.J., 2010, ‘Higher education quality assessment: an account of intended purposes and observed effects’, paper presented to the 23rd Annual CHER 15 Conference, Effects of Higher Education Reforms, Oslo, Norway, 10–12 June.

Thune, C., 2005, ‘The alliance of accountability and improvement: the Danish experience’, Quality in Higher Education, 2(1), pp. 21–32.

Vroeijenstijn, A.I., 1995, Improvement and accountability: navigating between Scylla and Charybdis: guide for external quality assessment in higher education
(London, Jessica Kingsley Publishers).

Westerheijden, D.F., Stensaker, B. & Rosa, M.J., 2007, Quality Assurance in Higher Education: Trends in regulation, translation and transformation (Dordrecht,

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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