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Master Thesis Reader - Research and Innovation in Higher Education

Implications of the perception of academics of the role and purpose of student engagement in internal quality assurance

Krisztina Jaksa



The higher education quality agenda has progressed to the next stage in England when the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) in 2012 published a code of practise on student engagement in internal quality processes (IQPs). This new framework has been an attempt to move away from a customer-oriented approach to quality management and to this effect it has been underpinned by the concept of 'partnership'. Treating students as partners in IQPs has increasingly been promoted as the new orthodoxy of improving the overall quality of education. However, the QAA acknowledged that the relationship between academics and students would have to be realigned before they could work together as ‘partners’. The literature also supports the notion that the difference in the way universities engage students in IQPs can be linked to how university management and academics perceive the role of students in education in general and in IQPs in particular (Lipsky 1980; Trowler, 1998; Newton 1999, 2000, 2002, Fielding, 2001; Laughton 2003; Johnson and Deems 2003; Lodge 2005; Gina 2006; Watty 2006; Little et al 2009, Trowler 1998, 2010; Brennan, 1997 cited in OECD 2010; Klemencic, 2011; Wenstone, 2014). In order to be able to set up, maintain or improve student engagement frameworks within IQPs policy makers, university leaders, administrators, student unions and academics as well as students themselves would need to understand the quality culture at their university especially in regards to how academics and students view their own as well as each other’s roles in IQPs. As Silver and Silver (1977, p.9) have pointed out "the meaning and implications of changes in the role of students rather than the assertion of changing definitions of students” should become the focus of research into the role of students in higher education.

The research question

This research set out to study how a particular group of students (student representatives ‘representatives’) and academics work together through IQPs and to what extent their relationship is framed by principles of consumerism and partnership, concepts which underpin the most recent national guidelines on student engagement in IQPs in England.

The main research question was:

Q. How the perception of academics of the role and purpose of student representatives in internal quality processes affect student representatives' selfreported satisfaction with their engagement in these processes?

Q1. How the ‘role concept’ of ‘student representative’ is constructed by academics and representatives themselves?

Q2. Is there a tension between representatives’ conception of their role and purpose and academics' conception of representatives' role and purpose in IQPs?

Q3. How applicable the role concepts 'customer and 'partnership' are in empirical research on student engagement in IQPs?

Theoretical background

Role theory, enriched with the operationalised definitions of 'customer' and 'partner' in the context of student engagement in quality assurance, provided the analytical framework for the study.

In order to provide a framework for an empirical research into student engagement in IQPs, two highly relevant role concepts in the English context 'students as customers' and 'students as 'partners' were operationalised. The concept analysis focused on the attributes and antecedents of these role concepts and based on these a list of possible consequences of these two role concepts were created using Walker and Avant’s (2005 cited in Rhodes 2012) concept analysis model.

The literature (Basave, 1998 cited in Zachariah 2007; Coates, 2005; Lodge, 2005; Clayson and Haley, 2005; Lomas, 2007; McCulloch, 2009; Streeting and Wise 2009; Kay et. al 2010; Little and Williams, 2010; Luescher-Mamashela, 2011; QAA, 2012; Wenston, 2012) suggests that if representatives were treated as partners they would be:

• involicaved in long-term educational developments
• involved in critl discussion on academic matters i.e. teaching methods, assessment methods
• seen as vital to the enhancement of education
• involved in the co-creation of solutions to educational issues and concerns
• student participation would be an integral part of IQPs and would be embedded in the quality culture of the university
• quality processes would focus on consensus building regarding quality values
• academics would have a proactive approach to quality enhancement and would proactively engage students in enhancement activities

The literature (Partington 1993 cited in Johnson and Deems, 2003; Zuo and Ratsoy 1999; Nadioo and Jamieson, 2007; Little et al. 2009; McCulloch, 2009; Little and Williams’s 2010; Luescher-Mamashela, 2011; Klemencic, 2011; Wenston, 2012; Kandiko and Mawer, 2013) suggests that if representatives were treated as customers:

• they would be mostly involved in short-term educational developments
• representatives’ main role in IQP would be to legitimise the process
• the culture of the university would be such that formal mechanisms were viewed necessary in order to ensure that students' voice was heard
• representatives’ quality values would be the most important drive for
institutional change and students would be final decision makers
• academics would be tasked with solving educational issues instead of involving students in creating solutions to issues
• the main role of representatives would be to voice the concerns and complaints of the wider student body

Role theory, enriched with the operationalised role concepts ‘customer’ and ‘partner’ provided a highly relevant theoretical framework for this research. It successfully captures the complexity of interaction between people in ‘human organisations’, such as universities, where the physical aspect of education plays only a limited role given that human interaction is the core activity of universities. The theory acknowledges the power of 'structures' (rules and social forces) which constrain individuals while it also recognises people’s capacity to operate freely within these structures and even to change them (Luttrell et. al. 2009). The social-psychological concept of 'role' brought individuals to the forefront of the discussion and explored the socialpsychological process of defining roles and taking up roles.

Role theory sees human organisations as 'open systems of roles'. The framework explores the intertwined nature of how roles are created and how roles are carried out and explores what factors affect the process and the outcome of such interaction. The theory's elementary assumption is that the occupants of different roles have distinctive characteristics, attitudes, believes and perceptions and that these dimensions effect how various processes that involved human interaction take place. This ‘human element’ has indeed been the focus of this research enquiry.

Katz and Khan's (1978, p. 198-219) established the terminology used by role theorists today. Their work is visualised in Table 1 and summarised in the following section.

Table 1. Katz and Kahn, 1978 p.196.

According to role theory, roles are created and defined based on organisational and individual expectations and are 'sent' by 'role senders' who create roles based on their expectations (academics), which roles are 'received' by 'focal persons' (representatives). Katz and Khan (1978, p.200) defined role expectations as a 'set of expected activities associated with the occupancy of a given position'; this research focused on the individual expectation of academics towards representatives.

Role sending is seen as both a communicational and influential process where the role sender defines what they expect to be done and how they expect things to be done and directly or indirectly they siege the opportunity to influence others. The role is being sent in order to 'bring about conformity to the expectations of the senders' (Katz and Khan, 1978 p. 190-191). This is relevant to this research as academics can either encourage or discourage the participation of representatives in discussions on teaching methods depending on their perceptions of what the role of representatives should be in IQPs.

Furthermore, role theory recognises a link between lower level of satisfaction with one’s role and role ambiguity (not knowing what one is expected to do as part of their
role) and role conflict (where conflicting messages are given to the person carrying out the role or where the role concept of the focal person and role sender significantly differ). The extent of role ambiguity and role conflict are connected to role senders’ and role receivers’ perception of the role at question and therefore these ‘side effects’ of role sending and receiving formed part of the research enquiry.

Katz and Khan's (1978) highlighted the need for research at the level of specific role sending and enactment (p.204) and Lizzio and Wilson (2009), who used role theory
to better understand students' motivations for undertaking the representative role, suggested that their research could be advanced by focusing on the ways in which the context of role taking, especially academics' concept of role of student representatives, impacts the engagements of representatives in IQPs. This research aimed to address both of these gaps by studying the relationship between a corresponding set of academics and representatives in the context of IQPs at a case university.


Creswell’s framework for research (2014), which recognised the connection between the research approach and the choice of design, method and philosophical worldviews, underpinned the planning and execution of this research. The basic philosophical assumptions of this qualitative enquiry were in-line with constructivist thoughts (Creswell, 2014; Silverman, 2011; Kvale, 2007) as this study set out to explore the role of representatives in IQPs aiming to provide imperial data on how the role concept of academics might affect student engagement in IQPs and to investigate the complexity of the relationship between academics and representatives.

A case study design was found to be highly relevant having taken into consideration the limited time available for data collection, the large statistical population of universities in England and the limited access to the particular group of people whom on this study focused on. Furthermore, due to local differences in the way students are engaged in IQPs at universities in England analysing the effects of academics' perception on student engagement in IQPs had to be looked at in a particular local context. The case university under investigation was a mid-ranking, post-1992 university with a student population of 20,000.

In-depth, semi-structured interviews were chosen as the method of data collection as such method allowed the exploration of not only the 'what-s' but also the 'why-s'
behind representatives' and academics' complex experiences. Furthermore, through in-depth, semi-structured interviews the researcher could gain a detailed understanding of participants' perceptions, attitudes and believes (Lewis, 2003). In accordance with constructionist belief, interview responses were not considered to be true or false but were treated as “displays or perspectives and moral forms which draw upon available cultural resources’ within social discourses” (Silverman 2011,

The 14 questions presented to participants were derived from the concept analysis of 'students as customers' and 'students as partners' in the context of IQPs. Interviewees were provided two statements for each question and were asked to choose the statement that better captured their perception of the role and purpose of representatives in IQPs followed by an extensive discussion. Representatives and academics were asked the same set of questions.

Representatives were chosen as the target group of this research as they were directly involved and were actively engaged in IQPs. Also, while the set up of the representative framework differ from university to university, some form of representative framework is present at most universities and therefore the findings of this study were predicted to have high relevance to most universities in England. Upon recognition of the time constraint, limited resources and limited access to potential participants lead to purposeful sampling (Gadd, 1995). In total, interviews with 7 student representatives and 7 academics and one administrative member of staff were included in the findings of this study. To ensure that the research was ethnically sound, a number of considerations, including access to participants, the appropriate level of information provided to participants and data storage issues were considered.

While this qualitative research followed the traditions of constructivism meaning that ‘answers’ to data were not treated as 'proof of reality', issues related to reliability have been acknowledged. In order to increase the creditability of the research findings, the researcher followed the guidelines of Silverman (2006) and ensured a degree of replicability by making the research as transparent as possible. Furthermore, information on how the research was planned and carried out has also been provided, the theoretical stance of the research had been outlined and the presentation of data was strongly guided by the analytical and theoretical framework. In addition, interviews were voice recorded in order to ensure that the actual words of the interviewees could be presented in the data analysis meeting the need for low inference descriptors (Seale 1999 cited in Silverman 2006, p. 287).

In regards to validity, the degree of generalisation is a central concern of qualitative researchers. Due to the time limitations and the limited access to participants working with a single university was viewed to be appropriate. In order to ensure that the findings can be, to a certain extent, generalised, Silverman (2005, p.128) suggested that researchers should utilise theoretical sampling where a single unit, such as an organisation, was seen as representative of a wider population where the extent to which the case organisation is a ‘typical’ one was not the focus of research but the working relations between the actors of this organisation was. By having operationalised role concepts 'customers' and 'partners' in the context of student engagement in IQPs, the study provided a framework for future analysis into the relationship between academics' role perception and representatives' satisfaction with their engagement in IQPs.

Riessman's thematic narrative analysis was utilised to make sense of the data collected. This method of data analysis focused on studying stories that developed throughout the interviews with a focus on what was said. In-line with a constructivist approach, narrative analyses tackles the problem of truth by seeing it as ‘truths of experiences’ (Personal Narrative Group, 1989 p.261 cited in Riessman, 1993 p.22). May (2008) also presented narratives analysis as an appropriate approach to data analysis when, as it is the case of this research, the question is how people construct identity or in our case 'roles'. Narrative analysis was viewed to be relevant as interviewees often created ‘hypothetical narratives' and ‘hypothetical conversations’ (Riessman, 1993). Interviewees used narratives to help them interpret their experiences, to explain their action and to justify believes or values and by analysing their narratives the research brought participants to the forefront of interviews (Silverman, 2011, Sarbin, 1986 cited in Riessman, 1993 p.22).

Key Findings

The findings of the study have advanced the literature on student engagement in IQPs. The rich qualitative data provided an insight into how the role concept of ‘representative’ is constructed by academics and representatives themselves. The extended interview scripts revealed that academics and representatives constructed their own identity in relation to one another in a complex way. In light of the interview data, it is clear that representatives were affected by academics' conception of their role although representatives’ self-reported satisfaction became meaningful when academics’ and representatives’ role concepts were analysed in relation to one another. The finding that representatives were perceptive towards academics’ concept of their role is in-line with Lizzio and Wilson’s findings (2009) and provided empirical evidence for the relevance of role theory to study interactions at universities. Representatives reported to have been affected in their role by the attitude of academics and they recognised whether they were marginalised or included in discussions, whether academics acted on their feedback or merely noted it down, whether they had real decision making power or had little bargaining power and whether they were appreciated.

When academics and representatives perceived the role of representatives in IQP in a similar way representatives reported to have high level of satisfaction while role conflict, derived from the difference between the role concept of academics and representative, lead to representatives feeling less satisfied with their engagement in IQPs. However, the relationship between academics’ role concept of representatives and representatives’ satisfaction with their engagement in IQPs was found to be complex. For instance even in cases where representatives and academics both perceived representatives as ‘customers’ in IQPs, dissatisfaction was reported. This was due to representatives having perceived their role as final decision makers while none of the academics, even those that perceived representatives as ‘customers’, were willing to hand over final decision making power to representatives. This in turn caused representatives to feel powerless and consequently dissatisfied with their engagement with IQPs. Indeed, the most significant dissatisfaction of representatives was detected in the cases where students identified their roles in-line with that of a ‘customer’ and where representatives and academics had opposing perception of the role and purpose of students in IQPs.

The unified resistance of academics to perceive representatives as final decision makers suggests that a truly ‘customer-‘service provider’ relationship in IQPs, where students have final decision making powers, is unlikely to ever become reality in the majority of higher education institutes in England. The findings of the study also suggest that a consumerist approach to student engagement in IQP would not lead to increased student engagement in IQP nor would it lead to higher student satisfaction. This is because those students who identified themselves as customers also indicated the need for having the final decision making power which academics were not prepared to hand over. To this effect, if representatives were to perceive themselves as having the attributes of a customer, they were likely to become increasingly dissatisfied with their engagement in IQPs.

While the QAA and the academic literature on student engagement in IQPs promote the partnership approach to student engagement in IQPs, both academics and representatives questioned the interest of students for more in-depth, partnershiplike work although interviewees reasoning varied. Some suggested that students’ limited interest in quality work was due to students having little interest in time consuming quality work, some suggested that students were sceptical about the institution's’ ability to change while others suggested that low student engagement was due to the hierarchical culture of universities as organisations. It can be referred from the findings that both academics and representatives agreed that IQP must be highly formalised and well-documented in order to ensure that the voice of students in IQP is heard, which indicated that students’ input into IQP is currently not embedded in the quality culture of the case university.

In terms of the applicability of the role concepts 'customer and 'partners' in empirical research on student engagement in IQPs, expressions, metaphors and concepts such as ‘empowerment’, ‘bargaining power’, ‘expertise’, ‘partnership’, ‘democracy’, ‘consumerism’ and ‘customer’ were utilised by participants suggesting that the analytical framework of the study was relevant to empirical research on student engagement in IQP. However, a number of representatives found some of the concepts, such as ‘consensus building over quality values’ or ‘academics being proactive in regards to student engagement in IQPs’, to be somewhat confusing concepts or struggled to relate these concepts to their role. The majority of representatives and academics interviewed appeared not to have a holistic understanding of the role of representatives and of how representatives would best be involved in quality work at the case university. Furthermore, academics appeared to struggle with articulating the benefits of increased student engagement in IQPs which suggests that the role and purpose of students in IQPs are still unclear to most academics although all academics interviewed reported to believe that increased student engagement in IQPs was beneficial.

In addition, a number of representatives made contradictory statements regarding their role indicating that the conceptual framework utilised in the this study was less relevant to them as it was to academics who were more articulate about their role perception of representatives (although unsure of the benefits of involving representatives in IQPs) than representatives themselves were. As mentioned earlier, participants were asked to choose between sentences which captured the role and purpose of representatives in IQPs as either a ‘customer’ or a ‘partner’. While the majority of participants initially found it difficult to emphasise one role concept over the other in the majority of the cases, as the interviews progressed, interviewees find it increasingly easy to relate more to one role concept over the other. In most cases interviewees defined the partnership approach as something they believed to be ‘ideal’ while acknowledged that in reality students are not treated as partners in IQPs.


The findings of this study highlighted the lack of discussion between academics and representatives over the role of students in IQPs despite the existence of an extensive representative framework. Many of the interviewees, both academics and representatives, commented how useful they had found the interview process as it helped them reflect on the role of representatives in IQPs. Such comments indicate that there is a need for more open discussions between academics and representatives on the ever-evolving role of representatives in IQP.

Also, while many of the academics interviewed had an ‘ideal view of’ student engagement in IQP, they acknowledged their lack of understanding of how student engagement in IQPs could be improved and to what effect. While the literature on student engagement in IQPs is limited, the Higher Education Academy (Trowler, 2010) provided a framework which could be utilised by universities to accommodate an honest and open discussion between academics, senior management, students and students union over the role and purpose of student engagement in IQPs. If the rational for student engagement in IQPs is agreed upon, universities would be able to create student engagement frameworks that would serve their particular purpose.

As an external reference point to the field of higher education, future research could draw on the literature on partnership in the public health sector. A number of academics interviewed used the ‘doctor-patient’ metaphor to illustrate the power relationship between academics and students. The public health literature on partnership could be a promising alternative to the consumerist management models on ‘engagement’.

Finally, this particular research area would benefit from typology building where role concepts such as ‘partner’ or ‘partnership’ are further investigated taking into consideration the perceptions of both students and academics. As the prominence of student engagement and student participation in university governance continues to increase, decision makers, both at national and institutional level, must ensure that academics as well as students are both engaged with change processes and that student expectations are managed well through educating students about the quality work at their respective universities.


I would like to express my gratitude to my supervisors Professor Dr. Hans Vossensteyn and Professor Dr. Frank Ziegele for their useful comments, remarks and engagement through the learning process of this master thesis.


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