Academic journal article Higher Learning Research Communications

Definitions of Quality in Higher Education: A Synthesis of the Literature

Academic journal article Higher Learning Research Communications

Definitions of Quality in Higher Education: A Synthesis of the Literature

Article excerpt


In 1985, Ball asked, "What the hell is quality?" Thirty years later, those in higher education are still trying to answer this question. Undoubtedly, defining quality continues to be difficult, with some asserting that quality can neither be defined nor quantified and others asserting that quality is subjective and dependent upon individual perspectives (American Society for Quality, n.d.; Bobby, 2014; Martin & Stella, 2007; Mishra, 2007; Westerheijden, Stensaker, & Rosa, 2007). the literature, specifically when tasked with developing one's own set of definitions.

The aim of this paper is to provide a synthesis of the literature on defining quality in the context of higher education. In the search for relevant literature, the authors intentionally cast a wide net, beginning with a broad search in Google Scholar followed by a narrower search in educational databases, including Academic Search Complete, Education Research Complete, Education Resources Information Center (ERIC), and SAGE Premier. The authors identified both peer-reviewed journal articles and publications from professional organizations, such as the International Organization for Standardization. The article begins with a discussion of the existing challenges and strategies for defining quality. Next, the authors provide a conceptual model of quality based on their review of the literature. Finally, they examine some considerations for defining quality assurance.

Challenges to Defining Quality

There are many significant challenges to defining quality. First, quality is an elusive term for which there is a wide variety of interpretations depending upon the views of different stakeholders (Bobby, 2014; Campbell & Rozsnyai, 2002; Cullen, Joyce, Hassall, & Broadbent, 2003; Harvey & Green, 1993; Kemenade, Pupius, & Hardjono, 2008; Martin & Stella, 2007; Newton, 2010; Vlasceanu, Grünberg, & Pârlea, 2007). There are four groups of stakeholders that must be considered when defining quality: providers (e.g., funding bodies and the community, taxpayers); users of products (e.g., students); users of outputs (e.g., employers); and employees of the sector (e.g., academics and administrators; Srikanthan & Dalrymple, 2003). Each group has a different perspective on quality. For example, students associate quality with the institution employers are concerned with quality in terms of the final product, which can be demonstrated and attempt to establish a culture of quality in higher education, all stakeholders should be involved in the discussion to ensure that different perspectives and needs are incorporated (Bobby, 2014; Cullen et al., 2003).

A second challenge is that quality is a multidimensional concept (Green, 1994; Vlasceanu et al., 2007; Westerheijden, et al., 2007). Therefore, reducing the concept to a one-sentence definition is problematic. In some cases, such definitions are one-dimensional, lack meaning and specificity, or are too general to be operationalized (Eagle & Brennan, 2007). For example, the following definition of quality is written so broadly that it is difficult to decipher its meaning or how it could be consistently applied in higher education: "the embodiment of the essential nature of a person, collective, object, action, process or organization" (Harvey, 2014, "Quality"). A third challenge is that quality is not a static but rather a dynamic, ever-changing pursuit of excellence that must be considered in the context of the larger educational, economic, political, and social landscape (Bobby, 2014; Ewell, 2010; Harvey, 2005; Harvey & Williams, 2010; Opre & Opre, 2006; Singh, 2010). For example, dwindling public trust in higher education has prompted institutions to refocus efforts on producing concrete evidence of student learning to funding bodies and customers rather than focusing on achieving prestige (Amaral & Rosa, 2010; Ewell, 2010). Given the challenges of defining quality, there are a number of disparate definitions in the literature. …

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