Evolution of internal quality assurance at one university – a case study

Publication Date03 April 2017
AuthorDavid O’Sullivan
SubjectEducation,Curriculum, instruction & assessment,Educational evaluation/assessment
Evolution of internal quality
assurance at one university – a
case study
David O’Sullivan
Quality and Performance Ofces, National University of Ireland Galway,
Galway, Ireland
Purpose Quality assurance (QA) at one University has evolved over the past 15 years through emerging
National and European standards, various leadership initiatives and through the engagement of key
stakeholders in co-designing and implementing internal QA processes. In 2000, the QA process was focussed
mainly on quality review (QR) that involved extensive reporting of information. It was characterised by
stakeholders as a largely reactive culture, treated with scepticism by faculty staff and that struggled to
convince both management and faculty that QA provided value. In 2016, QR is now leaner, more evidence
based and focussed around creativity and enhancement. In addition to QR, additional QA processes now
incorporate a variety of activities including benchmarking, structured policies and procedures and research
assessment. QA is also part of a tripartite approach that links quality, strategy and performance together, with
quality focusing on assuring an appropriate standard of excellence, strategy guiding faculty towards a vision
of the future and performance providing evidence of quality enhancement and strategy execution. The paper
provides a case study of the transformation of QA at the University.
Design/methodology/approach The research uses a case study approach. It documents a
methodology used to engage a wide number of stakeholders in a self-evaluation process and the results of that
process, i.e. enhancements to the internal review process and various policies and procedures.
Findings There are early indications that the University’s internal QA has migrated towards a more
responsive culture and is increasingly endorsed by the various internal and external stakeholder groups.
Research limitations/implications This paper presents the evolution of QA and potential lessons for
the wider Higher Education Institutions (HEI’s) sector.
Originality/value This paper provides a case study of changes to QA processes at one university that
has risen signicantly in various university rankings since. Some evidence is provided to show that quality
initiatives have contributed to overall performance.
Keywords Performance management, Quality assurance, Universities, Higher education,
Quality culture, Strategic planning
Paper type Case study
This research focuses on a case study of the evolution of the quality assurance (QA) at one
large University. Prior to the introduction of QA in 1995, the University exhibited traits of a
reproductive culture (Harvey and Stensaker, 2008) where individual expertise dened quality
and where transparency of the QA process across the University was poor. There was a
strong resistance by schools to external oversight and a focus by managers on maintaining
the status quo. The only external oversight accepted was the external examination process
that focussed mainly on student assessment, and accreditation by external organisations in
a very small number of subject areas. In 1995, a draft Government Act required the
University to “establish procedures for quality assurance aimed at improving the quality of
education and related services” (Universities Act, 1997). This Act heralded an increase in the
intensity of rules and regulations, both external and increasingly internal, within the
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
Received 7 March 2016
Revised 7 June 2016
29 August 2016
Accepted 17 January 2017
QualityAssurance in Education
Vol.25 No. 2, 2017
©Emerald Publishing Limited
DOI 10.1108/QAE-03-2016-0011
University through a newly established Quality Ofce. These developments mirrored
similar developments at the European level that eventually led to the “Standards and
Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area” (ESG, 2015) and
an increase in Accreditation activities by professional associations across a much broader
range of subject areas.
Between 1995 and 2010 the University established its own internal rules for QA focused
mainly on a procedure for the internal quality review (QR) of academic and support units.
According to Harvey and Stensaker’s (2008) framework, the dominant culture within Schools
arguably shifted from weak to medium intensity of external rules towards a more reactive
culture characterised by reluctant compliance by academic staff, the perceived threat of
potential sanction, high resistance and serious doubts about the potential for improvement.
This reactive culture, although accepting of the need for external rules, perceived quality as
externally imposed, interfering and a “beast that needed to be fed” Newton (2000). Schools
resultantly participated in a process that they had little or no faith in. Participation was also
limited to a small group of responsible individuals who produced the necessary paperwork
and met with QR reviewers, i.e. two sub-cultures were arguably present simultaneously – a
reproductive culture among the majority of staff and a reactive culture among a small
minority responsible for “feeding the beast”.
In 2010, the University decided to embark on developing a more responsive culture in the
face of further increases in the intensity of external rules and regulations. The University
wanted Schools to positively comply with regulations while also using them to transform the
School in line with their own goals. The aim of the culture change was to improve the degree
of internal group control of QA. In this regard, the University recognised that it was
necessary to engage as many staff as possible in the transformation process. The approach
adopted was to engage staff in redening QA within the University and “tap into” their
localised knowledge, practice, ideas and insights.
This paper presents empirical research of various stakeholder views of the successes and
challenges of the transformation process at the University between 2010 and 2015. The
research focuses primarily on ten key initiatives implemented during that period and that
could be useful in guiding the transformation efforts of all Higher Education Institutions
(HEI’s). The paper also provides insight in the methodology used by the University in
conducting the transformation that began with identifying and communicating an urgency
for change among staff, organising and securing top management commitment and later
engaging a large number of staff in generating ideas or initiatives for change. Finally, the
paper attempts to indicate the level of culture change achieved through the views of staff that
were interviewed.
Case study
The University reported in this case study was established in Ireland in 1849 and has 17,000
students including 800 PhD enrolments. It has over 800 academics that publish over 2,000
research papers annually. The University delivers over 340 taught undergraduate and
postgraduate programmes.
The drive to change the quality culture at the University emanated from top management
in preparation for an institutional review of quality in 2011. In setting out his vision, the
president or rector envisaged a tripartite approach to quality, strategy and performance and
took an active interest in the process of engaging staff in the development of the QA process
beyond QR. QA was broadcast widely as essential for assuring and improving performance.
The transformation process was championed and sustained at senior management boards
by a senior Vice President for Innovation and Performance (VP) with responsibility for

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