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Quality is in the eye of the beholder

23 Jun 2020 | Doug Parkin Quality - Creating Socially Distanced Campuses and Education Project: Doug Parkin, Principal Adviser for Leadership and Management at Advance HE, introduces the fourth of six Leadership Intelligence Reports from our Creating Socially Distanced Campuses and Education Project.

Is quality in the eye of the beholder? Well, yes and no. If you buy an expensive coat from an expensive shop – or a second-hand shop, if you are fortunate – then the look and feel of it may simply shout quality. There might also be a reasonable consensus on this regardless, even, of whether the coat is to everybody’s taste. So, it goes beyond being a purely subjective response. This apodictic notion of quality, where it is self-evidently and demonstrably the case, may sometimes bring with it exclusivity, but in most settings, including educational settings, there will be examples of products and services that in the eye of the beholder have the unmistakable mark of quality. There are likely to be examples in most curriculum portfolios of so called ‘standout’ sessions, modules or even courses. The frustration sometimes can be distilling the essence of this ‘quality’ so that it can be reproduced with consistency elsewhere.

Another question regarding quality is the degree to which it is achieved deliberately and intentionally. Is it a happy accident, the result of individual flair, an expression of talent, the result of dedicated effort, or the product of carefully structured planning and design? Is it something that delights us occasionally or is it a consistent and reliable experience that helps to maintain satisfaction, performance, and results?

“Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, intelligent direction and skilful execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives"

(William A. Foster, n.d.).

In a large and complex organisation of any type that provides services to others, one of the major challenges is ensuring a parity of user/customer experience across locations and across the service portfolio. Having an objective basis for knowing this is the core basis of quality assurance and control. The drive to delight customers equally whilst maintaining a stable cost structure is in many ways the cornerstone of business success.


Alongside quality we often have the word ‘standards’ and this is fundamental to all formal educational contexts. Standards provide the basis for objectivity and consistency, whether this is between lessons, assessments, modules, courses, or even through the use of benchmarks institutions. The American Society for Quality (ASQ) usefully captures the importance of standards generally by explaining that “because standards present precise descriptions and terminology, they offer an objective and authoritative basis for organizations and consumers around the world to communicate and conduct business”1.

Educational standards, however, are not static; they can and should evolve. As new knowledge domains emerge, professional approaches evolve, and disciplinary methodologies move forward, the standards that define proficiency, mastery and expertise need to move with them. And this will also be true of some of the changes and adjustments we make in response to COVID-19 and the socially distanced campus. For example, alternative assessments will need to be benchmarked against prior attainment to ensure that standards are maintained, and that will be a key aspect of quality assurance. However, redesigned courses and revised assessments may also point towards new standards and possibly even more desirable learning outcomes that better capture the core aims of the course or programme concerned.

The fascinating thing is that there are many dimensions of quality. To be exceptional in the ‘eye of the beholder’ is just one of these. Other dimensions include being consistent, being fit for purpose, offering value for money, and even being transformational. In the unfolding COVID-19 landscape that higher education institutions around the world are working so hard to respond to, understanding their own distinctive quality offering and how that operates and is translated into the student experience will be key to crafting a sustainable future. It is not simply about every institution trying to be all things to all people as regards their quality proposition.

The discussions in this Leadership Intelligence Report focussed on Quality are wide-ranging. They are structured around four key headings:

  • Maintaining quality during rapid change,
  • Ensuring equivalence across different modes of learning and teaching,
  • Continuing to provide assessment feedback that supports learning, and
  • Ensuring students get the higher education they are entitled to expect.

Ensuring equivalence

Ensuring equivalence as regards both course content and student experience across different modes and platforms is particularly challenging. Redesigning teaching to be less dependent on face-to-face, or mask-to-mask, learning environments inevitably involves exploring blended or mixed-mode approaches to teaching delivery. There are interesting possibilities to be explored here such as the combination of synchronous and asynchronous elements, the degree to which online experiences can be student led, and the opportunity to work with diverse student preferences in terms of where, when and how they study, which can enhance some aspects of inclusion. But from a quality perspective all of the choices involved bring forward the question of equivalence.

In the UK the Office for Students (OfS), the independent regulator of higher education in England, has said that higher education “providers should make all reasonable efforts to provide alternative teaching and support for students that is broadly equivalent to the provider’s usual arrangements” (20202). To many of those currently tussling with the challenges of programme redesign, particularly where there are strong practice-based elements to the curriculum involving human contact, and needing external accrediting body approval, these may feel like ‘small words’ for ’big actions’. How broad is broad is, perhaps, the key question.

The thread of course alignment, where this is strong, may hold the key to equivalence. If intended learning outcomes are well defined, then good educational design, universal design, would encourage us to provide a flexible range of opportunities for students to both engage with and demonstrate their achievement of the outcomes concerned. And from a quality perspective, regardless of the mode of teaching delivery the system of learning outcomes and academic and professional judgements around them should operate to ensure a fair and equal opportunity for student engagement and achievement. Good practice is good practice. In terms of the language of opportunity, it is interesting to speculate whether many of the ‘radical’ educational ideas arising in response to COVID-19 may actually be things which we should have been doing all along.

Student expectations

Finally, there is, perhaps, the biggest unknown in the current quality assurance puzzle, student expectations. The long-running debate around contact hours, which in England has certainly intensified since significantly increased student fees were introduced in 2012, may possibly intensify further. This could be re-framed in the current situation as a debate around ‘campus hours’ and HE institutions may find themselves trying to defend the argument using instead the language of something like ‘engagement hours’. Who knows?

One clear basis for student expectations is quite simply their consumer rights. In some higher education contexts, such as the UK, consumer protection law applies to HE providers. The key principle is that students should be given the information they need to make an informed decision before they apply to study at an institution. The terms and conditions and other provisions should be clear to students and with these come a set of expectations and obligations. The quality marker here is that students are entitled to expect the programme of study and educational experience, with associated features and benefits, as it was described to them. If there are to be changes based on one or more potential scenarios, then these need to be communicated in a clear and timely way, and for existing students it may even be the case that their consent will be required.

There are numerous other facets to student expectations in the current climate with risk and safety being one set of questions (including for parents and supporters) and opportunity and experience being another. The one thing that will be critical is that conversations with students and student representatives need to take place in a spirit of partnership. The best solutions are likely to be those that are genuinely co-created, and that process needs to begin now. And moving forward the assessment we make of student expectations and student needs should be kept under continuous review. It is only through dialogue that we can move away from quality being purely in the eye of the beholder.

In relation to learning and teaching, HE institutions could do worse than making ‘quality and equity’ a standing agenda item for every meeting for the foreseeable future. As Mark Corver, founder of dataHE, poignantly observed in a recent blog for HEPI (the Higher Education Policy Institute in the UK):

“Customers and suppliers do not always see things the same way” (Corver, 20203).

Read the full report: Quality - Creating Socially Distanced Campuses and Education Project

The next report in the series will be on 'inclusion' and will be published next week.


1. ASQ - What Are Quality Standards? – Available at [accessed 20 June 2020].

2. OfS (2020). Guidance for providers about student and consumer protection during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Available at: [accessed 20 June 2020].

3. Corver, M. (2020). Giving students confidence to reduce 2020 recruitment risks. HEPI. Available at: [accessed 20 June 2020].

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