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Quality Management E-book

Is Quality an 'Empty Signifier' or a 'Useful Vehicle of Continuing Improvement' ?

Ayenachew A. Woldegiyorgis


Is quality an ‘empty signifier’ or a ‘useful vehicle of continuous improvement’? This is only one of the multitude of questions and debates that still stand open around quality in the realm of higher education. Attempting to answer this question, one would be obliged to consider and examine a number of other questions, issues, arguments and debates related to the subject of quality. The question can be split in to two separate arguments. One argument is that quality, particularly in higher education, is a term that does not actually stand for anything concrete; rather it is an empty signifier with no practically identifiable mechanisms. The contrary argument, on the other hand, advances that quality uses empirical data, justifiable models and practical tools to deliver continuous improvements.
This paper first takes a panoramic look at the contending views, outstanding debates and questions in relation to quality in higher education with the purpose of establishing the ground from which the two arguments emerge. It then attempts to explain the two arguments at hand by using available literature. And finally concludes by arguing that the two are not the only possible ways to look in to the issue. Rather, relevance to context, balance between short term and long term results and the right choice of organizational mechanisms would determine the value and contribution of a quality process.

Views on quality

Over the past few decades, quality has become one of the most frequently used but, perhaps, least understood words in the world of higher education. Quality has always been and continues to be a highly debated concept from its basic definition to its application and benefits. For some – the relativists – like aesthetics, it is on the eyes of the beholder; for others – the objectivists – it has specific attributes that can be consistently identified and transferred from one scenario to another. Its slippery nature is well illustrated in the very popular words of Pirsig (1974 sited in Mishra, 2006) in which he says that quality is something you know and you don’t know at the same time, something you feel but cannot describe, something you are not sure of its existence because you cannot explain it, something that you know it exists because you feel some things are better than others.

Having come from the manufacturing industry, quality has diffused in to almost every sector. In the initial days, in the United States and Japan statistical approaches, mathematical formulations and scientific modeling ruled the domain (Hogg & Hogg, 1995). Nonetheless, its adaptation in to the HE sector has fallen short on taking the proper shift in definition and its modes of application; it has been shallow and thinned by the exercise of academic freedom (Largosen et al, 2004).

The attempt to define quality and to create a common understanding of what it constitutes has continued in different ways. A more comprehensive understanding of quality has been given by Harvey and Green (1993) who identified five different approaches to defining quality. Quality as exceptional (exceeding high standards and passing a required standard); quality as perfection (exhibited through “zero defects” and “getting it right the first time”, making quality a culture); quality as fitness for purpose (meaning the product or service meets the stated purpose, customer specifications and satisfaction); quality as value for money (through efficiency and effectiveness, return on investment); and quality as transformation (in terms of qualitative change). Similarly, Mirsha (2006) has put forward an overall view on quality where the whole concept of quality revolves around few central ideas: quality as absolute (the highest possible standard), quality as relative (can be described in relative terms), quality as a process (conformity to the procedural requirements), and quality as culture (each entity is concerned and acknowledges the importance of quality).

On the contrary, Badley (1993) argued that there is no need to look for a simplistic definition of quality in HE. He claims that:

“What the university doesn't need, in my view, is a simplistic definition of quality. Quality is one of those especially slippery and empty terms which confuse us when we try to pick out a set of defining characteristics. Quality is what philosophers call 'an essentially contested concept', its contestedness coming from its being descriptively or cognitively weak at the same time as it is emotively powerful. Its status is high, its prestige is great, its trouble-making and mystifying character is immense and yet its meaning is elusive and vague. Why should we chase this chimera? It is a term which we hardly used or needed even five years ago in any of our discussions about education or teaching or learning. Indeed in our old elite system of higher education the prevailing term used to be excellence and we all thought we knew what that meant and where we could get it” (p.23).

These different notions of quality, and the existence of no agreement even on the need for a definition, have led some scholars (such as Reeves and Bednar, 1994 sited in Mirsha 2006) to conclude that the search for a universal definition of quality has been unsuccessful. Here, one can note that the concept of quality is amorphous that can only be understood contextually.

Regardless of the continuing effort and the large volume of emerging literature, the concept of quality remains surrounded by a number of questions still unresolved: What does quality exactly mean? How can quality be assessed/managed/improved? What does it specifically focus on? In the organizational system, where is the locus of control for quality? Should quality come from above or from below? Should quality be assessed/controlled by internal or external mechanisms? What should the relationship between academia and the management be like in pursuing quality? Etc. The confusions, the complexities and the unresolved questions give a way for different debates and arguments regarding quality in higher education.

Quality as an ‘empty signifier’

The claim that quality in higher education has become an empty signifier – standing for nothing more than repetition of some technical words with no particular and realistic effect – is based on two fundamental uncertainties. The first one is the lack of clarity about the very concept of quality itself. As long as there is no clear and explainable understanding of the concept, it is unlikely that it can be brought to the ground to produce any tangible effect. The varying notions and open questions set forth above make it difficult to arrive at a clear articulation of what is meant by quality and what it does in the higher education sector. While there is a discernible inclination to the fitness for purpose definition of quality, particularly in public higher education institutions, Turner (2011) argues that this rather simply begs a set of questions relating to purpose than answering the one about quality: “Does a large organization like a university have a single purpose? Is the purpose of a university constant over time? And whose purpose is important in assessing quality?” (p.1). The answers to all of these questions are highly disputed, and therefore, the time and effort spent attempting to define the purpose of the university may probably end up being useless in helping to understand the meaning of quality. Hence, all in all, the signification that goes with the term quality is perceived in many different ways by different people. At times the interpretations are incomprehensible. Quality could mean anything; and, in a way, meaning anything is equivalent to meaning nothing.

The other basis for this argument is, again, the lack of clarity with regard to what exactly should the focus of quality be in higher education. According to Westerheijden (2007), quality assurance systems appear in a confusing multitude of forms, with different goals, coverage, organizational setting, etc. Systems significantly vary in terms of their focus on teaching, research or community service as well as their emphasis on input, processes or output. Badley (1993) extends on the confusion in the definition of quality and elaborates that the point of focus is dislocated. He sees that the debate about quality in higher education is often “bogus and simplistic” (p.23). It is bogus not only because the central issues of higher education – good teaching and learning – are indirectly addressed but also because it is preoccupied with creating bureaucratic structures for quality assurance. The debate is also simplistic because it picks up the generic ‘fitness for purpose’ definition as a common meaning to resolve the prevailing confusion without sufficient discussions to arrive at a consensus.

Harvey (1999) also stressed the misconception of quality as a managerial rhetoric. The dominant ‘delegated accountability’ approach to quality which is focused on processes has resulted in skeptic views on the productive value of quality in building institutional quality culture, even where procedures for quality are set in place, though not explicitly stated so. He gives the example of institutions where there is a well-developed culture of dialogue between teaching staff and students with outcomes in a form of amendment of course content, teaching style and assessment procedures. However this often goes unnoticed as a quality process because it falls short of the formalism commonly required.

It is argued that external evaluation, in particular, reaffirms the status quo and fails to address important issues about the nature of learning. External quality evaluation is over-concerned with methods and procedures that it has essentially overlooked substantial researches in to learning theory, the nature and style of learning, and classroom innovations (Harvey, 2002). Badley goes on even further arguing that, quality could be just a fashionable word used for the sake of making catchy reports in line with the interests of funding agencies. He underlines that the creation of quantifiable performance indicators does not guarantee a solution for the quality problem – “a collection of performance indicators is just a collection of data; and it remains meaningless unless the data is used along with educational values and principles in order to make educational judgments” (Badley, 1993, p. 24). In general, quality in higher education is a very fluid concept. Though it has undergone remarkable changes over the past few decades there is still no consensus about the concept as well as its practical application. Hence, it remains unpredictable, because the future will be, as Williams (2009, p.48) puts it, “determined by events which are unknowable at present”.

Quality as ‘useful vehicle of continuous improvement’

On the other side of the quality debate, one can see the growing favor for quality, its far reaching application and a number of studies suggesting and explaining the benefits of quality as a means to ensure continuous improvement in higher education. Owing to the growth in application, emergence of national regional and international institutions [and networks] and increased research in quality, many more models and specific tools are emerging, making practical applications more concrete and commonly understood.

Quality in higher education has evolved from a state of vague concept to a set of clearly articulated practical procedures that are crucial in hosting continuous improvement and accountability at institutional and system level (Harvey, 1999). It has also been noted that quality in higher education is becoming more and more linked to strategic priorities and developing sustainable schemes, which Stensaker (2007, p.59) described as a development towards an era “where a more realistic understanding of what quality assurance and quality processes can or cannot do is prevailing”. In other words, it is apparent that the quality process has resulted in the emergence of formal written guidelines for what actions could be taken in what situations. It has also made informed decision making possible through systematic application of data and information on issues such as performance, relevance and quality (Brennan & Shah 2000).

Besides, the availability of data regarding different aspects of institutional activities along with the greater promotion of stakeholder involvement through the quality process, has made it possible to open up the ´black box´ of higher education and to build a more collaborative and transparent institution (Stensaker, 2007). This, on the other hand, has not only made higher education institutions more consistent and predictable, but it also provides them with the opportunity to create a marketing and branding tool through their quality process (by articulating their goals, strategies and performances).

Through the use of different modes, (i.e. self-evaluation, best practices benchmarking, external quality monitoring, peer review, analysis of statistical information and/or use of performance indicators, surveys of students, graduates, employers and professional bodies), quality process serves a variety of purposes: promotes competition, ensures customer satisfaction, guarantees maintenance of standards, ensures accountability, creates credibility, prestige and status, and improve employee morale and motivation (Mishra, 2006).

Generally, the world of competition demands that higher education institutions continuously improve themselves to meet changing requirements of stakeholders. And that is possible only when they have a system that is used to diagnose their status quo and indicate ways of improvement – a quality process. According to Harvey (1999), the improvement function of quality process is to encourage institutions to reflect upon their current state and to develop what they have to do.

Kowalkiewicz (2007), taking the case of Polish higher education, has affirmed that there is a strong positive correlation between quality culture and quality of teaching. Similarly, Hogg & Hogg (1995) generally argued that a higher education institution can continuously improve by applying techniques of quality management, in particular Continuous Quality Improvement (CQI). Taking several examples from a number of US universities and colleges, they put forward practical suggestions that help continuous quality improvement applied across the spectrum of university, college, department and individual levels. They suggested some practical mechanisms that can improve quality using relevant statistical tools, such as: improving non academic student services, curricular improvements, working to increase collegiality within departments, promoting discussion related to CQI, needs to improve academic advising on a grass-roots level, beginning team projects soon after reading and learning the basics, course and methodology improvements, and personal and professional improvements for individuals.

In a nutshell, this argument maintains that quality in higher education has models that can be applied to serve specific purposes that relate to overall improvement. Quality process also uses a number of tools (e.g. process flow chart, graphs, Pareto analysis, fish-bone diagram, scatter diagram, check sheets, control charts) that signify the practicality of the whole process.

Concluding remarks

Generally there are two contending views on the role of quality (quality process) in higher education. One is that the term quality stands to be very ambiguous and represents no particular methodology or practical tool. It rather exists as simple rhetoric that focuses on things other than the actual substantive element of what higher education institutions do. The counter argument holds that quality processes are used to improve institutions and higher education systems at large by diagnosing weaknesses and suggesting practical mechanisms of correction. The fact that competition is ever growing and stakeholders are posing more complex and dynamic demand entails that higher education institutions have no choice but to continuously improve by engaging stakeholders and incorporating their inputs. To that effect the quality concept has grown clearer and more practical; it has become more integrated with strategic priorities and uses specific tools and techniques to diagnose and to rectify problems.

As elaborated in the previous sections, there are a score of scholars on both sides of the arguments. Nonetheless, it can also be argued that the truth in both of these arguments counts only to some extent. Context is the most important factor. In other words, the relevance and quality of a quality process depends on how well it takes a consideration of the respective contexts, and how well it balances between short term outcomes vis-à-vis long term benefits within the context.

[Higher] education being a service that is embedded with socio cultural values, political ideologies, philosophical virtues and the pride of sovereignty, it is hardly possible to forge a universal definition and practice of quality in higher education that works everywhere. Therefore, all questions and debates pertinent to quality have to be addressed within the respective contexts. Different systems have different meaning and approach towards quality. As Parri (2006) puts it, while in some countries the emphasis is on the consistent development of quality, the establishment of minimum standards takes precedence in other systems. It has to also be noted that quality in higher education is affected by strongly interdependent factors and to obtain the most sufficient assessment of quality, one has to consider as many factors as possible that appear to be relevant to the issues at hand.

Another important point to take in to consideration is that whether or not a quality system fosters a practical continuous improvement depends on how holistic and far-sighted it is. A disintegrated system that uses uncoordinated approach by different bodies will have such a chaos in its implementation that every concerned entity will have its own point of emphasis which leads to not only waste of resources, but also to the dissatisfaction of employees (and possibly other stakeholders) who later become nemesis to quality. Besides, falling victims to ‘naive realism’, it is not uncommon for policy makers to look for an oversimplification of complex concepts like quality (Costantinos, 2005). In doing so, they disproportionately focus on short term outcomes which happen at the expense of the long term benefits. That is another quintessential cause for the failure of quality in higher education.


Badley, G. (1993). The quality debate in higher education. British Journal of In-Service Education, 19(3), 23–28,

Brennan, J. & Shah, T. (2000). Quality assessment and institutional change: Experiences from fourteen countries. Higher Education, 40, 331-349,

Costantinos, B. (2005). Eminence of assuring quality of tertiary education: priming human qualities - excellence in education and learning. A public lecture at College of Education, Addis Ababa University, Addis Ababa,

Harvey, L. (1999). Quality in higher education. Paper at Swedish Quality Conference, Göteborg, November 1999. Accessed on October 28, 2012 from www.shu.ac.uk/research/ crea/publications/gotebor.pdf;

Harvey, L. (2002). Evaluation for what? Teaching in Higher Education, 7(3), 245 – 263;

Harvey, L., & Green, D. (1993). Defining quality. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 18(1), 9 – 33;

Hogg, R. V., & Hogg, M. C. (1995). Continuous quality improvement in higher education. International Statistical Review, 63(1), 35–48;

Kowalkiewicz, A. (2007). The impact of quality culture on quality of teaching – a case of business higher education in Poland. In Bollaert, L., et.al. (Eds). Embedding Quality Culture in Higher Education: A Selection of Papers from the 1 St European Forum for Quality Assurance (pp.63-68). Brussels: European University Association;

Lagrosen, S., Seyed-Hashemi, R., & Leitner, M. (2004). Examination of the dimension of quality in higher education, Quality Assurance in Education, 12(2), 61-69;

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Stensaker, B. (2007). Impact of Quality Processes. In Bollaert, L. et.al. (Eds). Embedding Quality Culture in Higher Education: A Selection of Papers from the 1 St European Forum for Quality Assurance (pp.59-62). Brussels: European University Association;

Turner, D. A. (2011). Quality in higher education. Roterdam: Sense Publishers;

Westerheijden, D. (2007). The changing concepts of quality in the assessment of study programs, teaching and learning. Portland: Portland Press Ltd;

Williams, P. (2009). The future of quality assurance. In J. Newton & R. Brown, (Eds). The Future of Quality Assurance (pp.48-59). Amsterdam: EAIR - The European Higher Education Society;


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