What is quality

There is no right answer as to what makes the best student experience. There is a wealth of literature about all aspects of learning, teaching and assessment. If there was a perfect student experience, no doubt someone would have patented it already!

The design of the student experience will be influenced by politics and ideologies, cultures, pedagogical researches, units of resources available to universities, national and international economic demands, social policies, trends in student participation and education—to name but a few.

Examples of the range of thinking that might influence approaches to quality include researches around what makes a quality student experience, e.g. Dimensions of Quality by Graham Gibbs.

Similarly, the other publications resulting from the quest project (quest.esu-online.org) outline several different perspectives on quality in higher education, including discussions following two classifications. The first one is based on Harvey and Green’s (1993) work on dimensions of quality, namely: quality as excellence, quality as exceptional, quality as value for money, quality as fitness for purpose and quality as transformation. The second one reflects two distinct features of higher education, (1) added-value and inclusiveness, as opposed to (2) selectivity and elitism.

It can be difficult to understand the factors at play in what makes a quality experience, but it is worth the effort for senior level representatives and helpful in putting their views into a wider context and when discussing quality issues with institutional managers and policy makers. However, most students cannot be expected to be aware of the range of researches that explore what makes good teaching, effective assessment, help develop employability or address the needs of diverse range of students; nor can they be expected to understand the range of the philosophical approaches to quality. What all students can be expected to understand is their own experience and how it relates to different aspects of quality.

Standards of education

There are many ways in which you can think about education in terms of standards. The most obvious way would be to think about the standard of the qualifications you receive. There are also standards imposed from outside the university, such as legislative standards or standards set by funding bodies.

Standards of qualifications

The standard of the qualification should be the same regardless of the quality or type of experience you receive. A good pass in a chemistry degree from a university should be of the same standard as a good pass in a history degree at the same university. Similarly, a good pass in chemistry from one university should be of the same standard as a good pass in chemistry from a different university. However, while the standard of a qualification should be the same, qualifications from different universities will be different. A chemistry degree from one university might be based on a very theoretical and academic research whilst another might be more relevant to applied sciences and industries. Both can be of the same standard but result in different types of experiences.

Perceptions of standards of qualifications

Whilst, it seems simple to say that standards of qualifications should be the same regardless of circumstances, people can have different perceptions on this topic and there is a big debate on the standards of qualifications not only in universities, but at all education levels.

Some believe that there are good universities and not so good universities and therefore good or less good qualifications. These perceptions do not always relate to the standard of the qualification or indeed the quality of the student experience. Such categorisation may place some universities above others, but is the standard of the qualifications different from one to the other?

Employers and the public may comment in general on standards of qualifications. How do you feel when you see stories in the press about falling standards?

Perceptions about quality will affect people’s views about standards of qualifications but these thoughts are not always accurate. Opinions are also affected by a range of other factors, some of which we will look at later in this handbook; others are more concerned with issues such as prestige. Perceptions of the standard of qualifications can have important, though not always desirable, influences on the status of qualifications and can therefore affect issues related to social mobility and equal opportunities.

European standards of qualifications

Different universities and countries will have various methods to ensure that standards of qualifications are followed. For example, some countries may operate a system of inspections, where each study course is assessed to judge whether they apply the same standard of qualifications. Other countries may operate a system of moderation or peer assessment, such as an external examiners’ system.

The Bologna Declaration was signed in 1999 by education ministers from 29 countries in Europe, aiming at creating a coherent and cohesive European Higher Education Area (ehea). The agreed objectives promote activities across Europe that enhance student mobility, including steps that support increased compatibility of standards of qualifications across Europe. More information about these objectives can be found at http://www.eua.be/eua-work-and-policy-area/building-the-european-higher-education-area/bologna-basics.aspx(external link) and in various documents mentioned in appendix 2 of this handbook.

Standards defined by external factors

The standard of the qualifications is an output from the university experience. There are also standards related to inputs. There will be some standards that a university will be measured or judged by, such as legislative standards and/or standards related to funding. For example, there may be requirements demanded by law on aspects of equality and diversity or environmental factors. Funding may also be dependent on a university recruiting certain types of students. These are all examples of standards that universities must meet.

There may be other standards that universities need to meet. Some countries might operate standards related to the size of classes, assessment methods or teachers’ qualifications. Again, these are examples of prescribed standards that some universities need to meet. However, as education is more than a simple measure of input and output, other standards might be more complex. There might be codes of practice or benchmark statements that outline agreed standards for a particular type of activity, aspect of the student experience or subject. Those codes or benchmarks might be prescribed but also agreed by the national university community. They might offer a set of principles and indicators rather than strict prescribed standards. Universities will still be measured against these standards but in a more subjective way.

The European Standards and Guidelines are an example of type of standard. They offer an agreed set of principles on how institutions should monitor standards and review the quality of their provisions across the European Union.
Some standards might be internal at a specific university. For example, a university might set a standard that all feedback on assessed work will be returned within a certain period of time or that teachers or academic staff should offer students a minimum number of contact hours.

Quality assurance versus enhancement

In discussions about the quality of education you will often hear two terms mentioned: quality assurance and quality enhancement.

Quality assurance is the standard that has been agreed on, usually with a national body, about what requirements and levels are necessary for a study programme to be awarded a degree.

Quality enhancement is the process aiming at improving the quality of study courses, ensuring a positive impact on the students’ learning experience.

Quality assurance provisions will assess institutions against a diverse set of standards as discussed in previous sections. They can also assess the processes that institutions may have in place to ensure that those standards are met. When you look at the range of things a university might be assessed against, then it is understandable that the range of ways in which quality is assured can be very diverse as well.

Quality enhancement is not just about checking that those standards are met but also about creating an environment where everyone is working towards the goal of making the best out of the students’ experience. The approach to quality assurance versus enhancement can influence the type of arrangements an institution or a country might have in place.

Students have made great progress in the recent years to ensure they have a full role to play in external and internal processes of quality assurance and enhancement. However, it is important to make sure that students are not just partners in these processes but also able to comment on the quality of their experience.