THREE key concepts stand out in the headline of this article. 

These are ‘quality assurance’, ‘higher education’ and ‘academic freedom’. 

All of them are quite familiar; but if you allow your mind to dwell on them awhile and interrogate them more seriously, you realise that each of them is quite a polemic. 

This article gives you my own mental map which I hope should assist you in understanding and re-thinking these concepts as well. 

We will begin by exploring their definitions before teasing the main concept which we have spotlighted for disputation, being the concept of ‘academic freedom’.

Quality Assurance in higher education.

Quality Assurance (QA)

Quality is extremely hard to define and it is simply stated: ‘Fit for use or purpose’. 

It is all about meeting the needs and expectations of customers with respect to functionality, design, reliability, durability and price of the product. 

Assurance, too, is nothing but a positive declaration on a product or service, which gives confidence. 

It is certainty of a product or a service, that it will work well. 

It provides a guarantee that the product will work without any problems as per the expectations or requirements. 

We proceed by stretching out the generic conceptualisations of quality assurance, which I am sure most of you are familiar with. 

  • QA is a way of preventing mistakes and defects in manufactured products and avoiding problems when delivering products or services to customers; which ISO 9000 defines as “…part of quality management focused on providing confidence that quality requirements will be fulfilled.”
  • QA comprises administrative and procedural activities implemented in a quality system so that requirements and goals for a product, service or activity will be fulfilled. 

It is the systematic measurement, comparison with a standard, monitoring of processes and an associated feedback loop that confers error prevention. 

This can be contrasted with  quality control, which is focused on process output.

  • QA includes two principles: ‘Fit for purpose’ (the product should be suitable for the intended purpose); and ‘Right first time’ (mistakes should be eliminated). 
  • QA includes management of the quality of raw materials, assemblies, products and components, services related to production as well as management, production and inspection processes. 
  • QA is any systematic process of determining whether a product or service meets specified requirements. 
  • QA establishes and maintains set requirements for developing or manufacturing reliable products. 

A quality assurance system is meant to increase customer confidence and a company’s credibility, while also improving work processes and efficiency as it enables a company to better compete with others 

  • The concept of QA, as a formalised practice, started in the manufacturing industry and has since spread to most industries, including software development.

It is clear from the above explications that quality assurance is seen as a function of industrial processes and products check, hence the constant reference to ISO. 

The International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) is a driving force behind QA practices and mapping the processes used to implement QA. 

QA is often paired with the ISO 9000 international standard. 

Many companies use ISO 9000 to ensure their quality assurance system is in place and effective.

However, industrial processes and products are not the only functions of quality assurance. 

The concept also applies to education in general and to higher education which is the focus of this discussion in particular. 

Why emphasis on quality in higher education today?

While quality assurance is a modern concept that has been popularised in the last three decades or so, quality has always been regarded by human society as an essential element of any product produced. 

The philosopher Aristotle has been quoted as having once said: “An examination of a knife would reveal that its distinctive quality is to cut, and from this we can conclude that a good knife would be a knife that cuts well.” (ESIB, 2003,12).

Aristotle’s comment is a simple, but precise, definition of quality. 

Any object, any product, must define and distinguish itself by how effectively it performs the function for which it was made. 

I would, therefore, agree that: “Quality remains the most important attribute that creates value about the product / service for the receiver. 

It is also the means by which business/service providers differentiate themselves from their competitors.” (ESIB, 2003,9). 

Translated into higher education, in very simple terms, this would mean that a good higher education institution is one that performs its functions to the expectation and satisfaction of all its stakeholders. By stakeholders, here, we refer to such groups as university administrators, academics, students, governments and other sponsors as well as the general public.

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