Understanding quality culture

Date25 September 2009
Published date25 September 2009
AuthorUlf Daniel Ehlers
Subject MatterEducation
Understanding quality culture
Ulf Daniel Ehlers
Institute for Computer Science and Business Information Systems,
University of Duisburg-Essen, Essen, Germany
Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to develop a holistic understanding of quality in higher
education which reveals the current debates about accreditation or quality process standards as
insufficient, and to propose an enhanced model for quality culture in educational organisations.
Design/methodology/approach – The conceptual framework is based on relevant research in the
field of quality development for education, and integrates it with a series of previously published
works related to quality methodologies, quality literacy and quality as a multidimensional concept.
Quality is approached from an educational science perspective, and is understood as a relationship
among all the participants and resources of an educational scenario.
Findings – The paper establishes the foundation for a comprehensive understanding and analysis of
quality culture in organisations, focussing on higher education. While this understanding of quality as
part of the organisational culture seems to gain more importance there is still a lack of fundamental
research and conceptual understanding of the phenomenon in itself. Quality development in higher
education is often limited to bureaucratic documentation, and disregards the development of quality as
an organisation’s holistic culture. However, there is a need to focus on promoting a quality culture
which is enabling individual actors to continuously improve their educational practice.
Originality/value – The original value of the paper is to approach quality development in higher
education from an organisation’s cultural perspective. When the conceptual foundations for empirical
research are worked out, the professionals can benefit by understanding the interrelated nature of
educational quality and organisational culture in higher education institutions.
Keywords Quality culture,Higher education, Quality, Education,Quality management,
Paper type Conceptual paper
Introduction: a culture of quality in higher education
We are entering a new era in quality management for higher education. While it is
difficult to mark its exact beginning, it is clear that it is moving away from a
mechanistic to a holistic and cultural view of quality in education. It is characterised by
an emerging understanding that quality development, in essence, demands for the
development of an organisational culture based on shared values , necessary
competencies and new professionalism. Whereas, much attention has been paid to
mastering instruments of quality control or accreditation in the past decade, the focus
is more and more on mastering cha nge, allowing ownership for ind ividual
development, promoting champions in organisations and enabling professionals in
higher education contexts (Wolff, 2004).
Concepts like quality control, assurance and management are often perceived as
technocratic top-down approaches which frequently fail in higher education (Sursock,
2004, F9.1). For a long time quality development has followed a modularistic approach
by singling out organisational processes, describing and quality assuring them. The
new generation – or era – focuses on change more than on control, development rather
than assurance, and innovation more than compliance. The former – traditional
understanding of organisational management, promoted by theorists like Michael
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
quality culture
Quality Assurance in Education
Vol. 17 No. 4, 2009
pp. 343-363
qEmerald Group Publishing Limited
DOI 10.1108/09684880910992322
Porter (1985, pp. 11-15), inherently represents the belief that strategies can be
pre-determined and precisely planned. The latter and new generation of approaches,
promoted most prominently by Henry Mintzberg (1994, p. 112), affirms that change in
organisations is emergent and resulting from employees’ competences and
organisational culture. In this understanding aspects like quality management
systems and instruments, competencies and individual and organisational values are
not seen as separate entities any longer, but are combined in holistic concepts. None of
them is superior to the other. In this new view educational quality can not be
normatively pre-defined by experts but has to emerge in open negotiation and through
stakeholder participation. From such an organisational cultural perspective it is
important to approach quality holistically and combine cultural elements, structural
dimensions and competencies into one holistic framework, enabling stakeholders to
develop visions, shared values and beliefs. The paper shows that communication,
participation and the combination of top-down and bottom-up interaction is of key
importance to a successful development of quality culture.
A main problem which is addressed is that even though sometimes effective
organisational processes have been implemented, the educational quality (e.g.
answering the question “what is good learning?”) is still lagging behind, and teaching
strategies of educators or learning strategies of students have not been improved. The
development of an education oriented and comprehensive concept for educational
quality in organisations is still underdeveloped (Newton, 2000, p. 153). In earlier works,
the elements of a new and more comprehensive understanding of quality for education
have been spelt out. It has been suggested that quality development in education has to
focus on incorporating new values, skills and attitudes into professional educators’
behaviour in order to have an impact on the teaching and learning processes (Ehlers,
2006b, 2007a, b). The author proposed that educational quality is the result of a
co-production process in an actual learning situation (Ehlers, 2004, 2005a, 2006a), and
observed that in contrast to that many quality strategies follow the implicit logic that
the quality of educational processes is a direct result of a “faultless flow” of planning,
preparation, and teaching process. The author was then emphasizing the importance of
competences rather than mere process definitions in order to enable educators and
students to act as competent quality developers of their own improved educational
environments. The so-called quality competences have been described as the concept of
quality literacy (Ehlers, 2006b, 2007a, b, c).
In view of the deficits in current quality research and management practices, we will
take further steps in this article and combine the elements of process oriented quality
management and the concept of quality literacy in order to develop a comprehensive
concept of quality culture for educational organisations, focussing on higher education.
Quality culture as such focuses on organisations’ cultural patterns, like rituals, beliefs,
values and everyday procedures while following processes, rules and regulations. In
the next section we will show that quality in higher education moves from a debate
about regulations to a more holistic debate on organisational culture. We will then (in
the following section) answer the question, “What is organisational culture?” by
discussing and examining the state-of-the-art research in organisational culture. In the
current section we discussed approaches for organisational culture and compared
them. We then show (in the subsequent section) the relationship between quality and
culture for higher education organisations. The final section introduces a new model of

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