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Term Definition

Quality in higher education is a multi-dimensional, multi-level, and dynamic concept that relates to the contextual settings of an educational model, to the institutional mission and objectives, as well as to specific standards within a given system, institution, programme, or discipline. Quality may thus take different meanings depending on:

 (i) the understandings of various interests of different constituencies or stakeholders in higher education (quality requirements set by student/university discipline/labour market/society/government); (ii) its references: inputs, processes, outputs, missions, objectives, etc.; (iii) the attributes or characteristics of the academic world which are worth evaluating; and (iv) the historical period in the development of higher education. 
A wide spectrum of definitions of academic quality has been used: 
Quality as excellence: a traditional, elitist academic view, according to which only the best standards of excellence (usually meaning a high level of difficulty and of complexity of a programme, the seriousness of the student testing procedures, etc.) are understood as revealing true academic quality.

Quality as fitness for purpose: a concept that stresses the need to meet or conform to generally accepted standards such as those defined by an accreditation or quality assurance body, the focus being on the efficiency of the processes at work in the institution or programme in fulfilling the stated, given objectives and mission. Sometimes quality in this sense is labelled as: (i) a value for money approach owing to the (implicit) focus on how the inputs are efficiently used by the processes and mechanisms involved or (ii) the value-added approach when results are evaluated in terms of changes obtained through various educational processes (e.g., teaching and learning processes). A variant of the latter is the quality as transformation approach, which is strongly student centred. It considers quality as a transformational process within which the better a higher education institution is, the better it achieves the goal of empowering students with specific skills, knowledge, and attitudes that enable them to live and work in a knowledge society.

Quality as fitness of purpose: a concept that focuses on the defined objectives and mission of the institution or programme with no check of the fitness of the processes themselves in regard to any external objectives or expectations. Within this approach, one may distinguish alternative approaches developed in the 1990s: (i) quality as threshold whereby certain norms and criteria are set and any programme or institution has to reach them in order to be considered to be of quality. In many European higher education systems, a variant defining quality as a basic/minimum standard, closely linked to accreditation, is used. In this case, the starting point is that of specifying a set of minimum standards to be met by an institution or programme and to generate the basis for the development of quality-improvement mechanisms; (ii) quality as consumer satisfaction: quality perceived as closely linked to the growing importance of market forces in higher education, that focuses on the importance of the external expectations of consumers (students, families, society at large) and other stakeholders.

Quality as enhancement or improvement: focusing on the continuous search for permanent improvement, stressing the responsibility of the higher education institution to make the best use of its institutional autonomy and freedom. Achieving quality is central to the academic ethos and to the idea that academics themselves know best what quality is. 
Each approach has advantages and disadvantages, being more or less suitable for a specific period of time and/or national context. In terms of evolution, there are permanent movement and oscillations between relative versus absolute, internal versus externally oriented, and basic versus more advanced and sophisticated notions of quality. However, common to all of these quality approaches is the integration of the following elements: (i) the guaranteed realization of minimal standards and benchmarks; (ii) the capacity to set the objectives in a diversifying context and to achieve them with the given input and context variables; (iii) the ability to satisfy the demands and expectations of direct and indirect consumers and stakeholders; (iv) the drive towards excellence (Van Damme, 2003).

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