Creating a Quality Culture in Higher Education

quality culture in higher education

Since the dawning of the United States formalized accreditation system in 1952, accreditation has been a significant driver for education quality management of the modern academic enterprise. Once a voluntary system of accountability, accreditation is now a requirement for federal funding such as financial aid for students attending institutions of higher learning in the US, making institutional accreditation an essential compliance measure for receiving federal aid. The current system of accountability calls for the institutions to create a quality culture.

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Accreditation: Higher Education’s Answer to Total Quality Management

While some see the “quality assurance” investment as burdensome, and far too costly, many do not see enough perceived value in regional accreditation alone to satisfy their differentiation in the marketplace. The regional accreditation journey often minimizes the central question, “Are students learning?” ignoring academic programs’ need to articulate excellence in teaching and learning and, even more important today, graduates’ career readiness and inevitably learned outcomes.

Higher education markets across the world, similar to the US, sought specialized accreditation as a solution. No longer seen as an option but a must for demonstrating global competitiveness, accreditation became the single most important driver for demonstrating quality. This placed further pressure on good programs to invest in demonstrating their programs were of high quality. As such, accreditation became for some academic programs a preferred practice for demonstrating quality, and today, serves as an internationally supported, almost automatic “gold seal of approval” in certain regions of the world for quality in higher education. However, the ongoing management of accreditation compliance programs can be a stressor for higher education professionals. Accreditation alone does not drive quality, but instead, it must be met with a culture that embraces and creates ‘quality’ values. Maintaining accreditation is costly, and the process coupled with managing the strategic direction and creating mission-vision alignment make quality education management a high-stakes proposition for many institutions and academic programs that truly want to achieve organizational and academic excellence. As many institutions are faced with external forces aside from accreditation, the one central force restraining change is culture, specifically the focus on quality in culture. Higher education systems approaching quality efforts often overlook the time investment in building their culture focusing on quality.

Based on our experiences and those described in the case studies found in the whitepaper, The Use of Summative Assessment to Improve Quality in Business Administration Programs, we offer the following insights into creating a quality culture.

Creating a Quality Culture

If accreditation does not solely guarantee quality in higher education, then what does? What drives quality, and what forces work against it? Let us start with the latter. Forces such as budget, lack of process, and omitted mission-vision alignment have become major inhibitors to sustained change and continuous improvement of education programs.

Maintaining accreditation is costly, and the process coupled with managing the strategic direction and creating mission-vision alignment make quality education management a high-stakes proposition for many institutions and academic programs that truly want to achieve organizational and academic excellence. As many institutions are faced with external forces aside from accreditation, the one central force restraining change is culture, specifically the focus on quality in culture. Higher education systems approaching quality efforts often overlook the time investment in building their culture focusing on quality.

Culture by design is a transformative process that never ends and is evidenced by an institution’s commitment to continuous delivery and integration of quality systems that begin with people, values, and mission alignment.

Lewin's Force Field Analysis
Examining Quality Drivers and Restraining Forces in a Higher Education. Adapted from Lewin’s Force Field Analysis (1951).

Maintaining accreditation is costly, and the process coupled with managing the strategic direction and creating mission-vision alignment make quality education management a high-stakes proposition for many institutions and academic programs that truly want to achieve organizational and academic excellence. As many institutions are faced with external forces aside from accreditation, the one central force restraining change is culture, specifically the focus on quality in culture. Higher education systems approaching quality efforts often overlook the time investment in building their culture focusing on quality.

Culture by design is a transformative process that never ends and is evidenced by an institution’s commitment to continuous delivery and integration of quality systems that begin with people, values, and mission alignment.

Why are some institutions of higher learning more successful at building, modeling, and transforming culture across their education systems and academic programs? They understand quality in culture is by design. It does not just show up at the proverbial doorstep and ring the bell because they are accredited. It already resides within the institution or academic program and is often revealed in the organization’s ideas, values, and everyday practices and its key stakeholders.  Culture, according to Merriam-Webster, is the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization; suggesting the administration, faculty, students, community, and its partners must desire a quality culture and make a commitment to organizational excellence. In this regard, we understand institutions and academic programs that demonstrate quality first, make a commitment to an excellence journey, and secondly, the integration of quality as a core value.

What are the inhibitors of quality and how do institutions and academic programs overcome perceived quality barriers? Drivers of quality and forces restraining quality efforts are almost always competing. Therefore, once you make the commitment to quality, you must also commit to the sustainment of continuous improvement efforts that affect quality education management and the internal and external requirements for addressing how quality is measured. Establishing a basis for success ensures clear criteria for outcomes achievement and measurement and evaluation tools for monitoring culture shifts and responding to new drivers and resistors to change as they arise. Balancing these forces requires both strategic surveillance and pragmatic approaches to addressing quality goals. Most of all, it plans for the “people side of change” and assures development, incremental opportunities to grow, and innovation in the academic enterprise overtime to absorb the positive benefits of change.

Leading Academic Quality

In its transformative state, quality improvement creates synergies between faculty, administration, and student beliefs with investment in their development and the maturation of quality processes, technology, and the overall infrastructure. This type of change allows programs to operate at their highest levels. Leaders involved in continuous improvement initiatives must create awareness around the need for quality in academic programs and services. By optimizing their existing capabilities to deliver quality, including managing inefficiencies, such as monitoring process weaknesses and early-stage process deployments, quality leaders (accreditation, assessment, quality assurance managers) can make relatively small changes to yield tremendous results. 

In addition, administrators and quality education management professionals should assure the quality objectives are aligned with the vision, mission, and core values. Assuming the planned quality initiatives are well-communicated, the targets and implementation strategies are transparent and authentic to the institution; all academic unit stakeholders should understand their role and how they contribute to quality.Implicit to their design, programs focused on creating a quality culture or strengthening their quality efforts will characteristically approach quality management with these three guiding assumptions:

  1. Drivers and forces are always at play in the current organizational state, yet the focus on quality is well balanced and managed for successful outcomes.
  2. The introduction of additional drivers that support improved quality efforts is minimizing or reducing forces that restrain and detract quality. This is approached strategically and in alignment with the current mission, vision, and core values of the institution or academic unit as well as planned horizons.
  3. Continuous quality improvement is sustained through staged and incremental change initiatives that are routinely measured, monitored, evaluated, and, most importantly, communicated often.

By creating a quality culture, you may not be able to address all the organizational challenges or improve all your quality processes. However, you will facilitate the change that comes with managing continuous improvement and creating synergies between your strategic and operational goals. Thus, consolidating efforts and prioritizing quality in your educational delivery system, whereby small and incremental change can happen without much disruption or threat to the quality system, should be the ultimate goal of your excellence journey.

To read more about the relationship between accreditation, assessment, and quality culture, download the full whitepaper, The Use of Summative Assessment to Improve Quality in Business Administration Programs.