Quality is in the eye of the beholder

To celebrate their 25th anniversary, the QAA has been exploring the concept of quality through a series of articles and events. Their latest event was a panel held on 15 June, which delved into the topic “quality is in the eye of the beholder”.

Quality is a multifaceted concept, as detailed in a recent article by QAA CEO Vicki Stott. Panel members Hillary Gyebi-Ababio (Vice President Higher Education at NUS) and Maureen McLaughlin (Academic Registrar and Director, Student, Library, and Academic Services at Northumbria University) likened quality to a kaleidoscope - it is made up of several interrelated and interdependent parts which make a beautiful picture when everything is working in harmony. But the effect can be quite jarring when even one part of the picture does not align.

To pin down the definition of the term, the panel focused on defining what quality is not. Quality does not equate to value for money - although the panel did recognise that it is important education does deliver value for the money and the time that students invest. However, defining quality as purely value for money constricts students into the role of solely consumers of education, which overlooks the roles students can play in engaging, developing, and co-creating their education alongside academic and support staff. As each student’s individual educational and support needs will be different, they will need to be provided with varying levels of support and therefore each student’s value for money will be different. Therefore, the panel argues that the quality of education cannot be reduced to or defined purely in monetary terms.

Quality also does not equate to outcomes. The panel made the point that quality should be seen in terms of the process and the outcomes in equal measure. As Professor John Sawkins (Deputy Principal (Learning and Teaching) at Heriot-Watt University) put it, quality should not be seen as a “five year sheep dip to rid the organisation of nasty bugs and ticks”. It should be an ongoing process that all teams and departments engage in on an ongoing basis to identify ways to be better and deliver higher quality for the benefit of students. To enable this, Professor Chris Millward (Professor of Practice in Education Policy at University of Birmingham) added that policy needs to move away from a reliance on market forces to drive quality. It is a culture of quality that works best at embedding the processes and systems required to achieve the intended outcomes.

Quality also does not equate to the assurance of quality. While quality assurance is important in measuring quality, it needs to delve into the reasons behind the measured level of quality. It needs to delve into causation, into the lessons that can be learned, and practices that can be applied across teams, departments, and institutions.

Ultimately, the panel agreed that quality is achieved when we put students first. Hillary Gyebi-Ababio exemplified quality as a creation of a learning environment that is conducive for student enrichment, development, and curiosity; setting students off on their journey to carve out the impact they want to make in the world and in their communities.