Communication key to creating a culture of quality in higher education

01 Juin 2016


Stephan Huger

The following is part three in a series of articles on IIEP’s international research project focused on innovative and effective internal quality assurance systems in eight public and private universities around the world. IIEP will soon publish a series of case studies available for download on its website. The results will also be discussed at the upcoming IIEP Policy Forum from 9-11 June 2016 at the Xiamen University in China.


Internal quality assurance is widely believed to be a strong catalyst for institutional reform in higher education worldwide. By putting in place a set of quality assurance tools and processes, universities are better equipped to meet standards, keep check on the relevance of their programmes and foster a culture of quality within their institution.

Case studies in China and Austria show how dialogue matters


The history of IQA in two universities, albeit nearly 5,500 miles apart, in China and Austria, shows how important communication is to building a strong, effective IQA system. In China, Xiamen University learned from its recent case study that dialogue and stakeholder involvement is central to quality improvement. Over the past two decades, this leading research University has developed an efficient and effective IQA for enhanced teaching and learning. The case study confirmed two important realities: without widespread understanding and recognition of the IQA system amongst a range of stakeholders there would be no participation. Furthermore, the level of involvement correlated to the IQA’s overall ability to leverage quality and ignite reform within the University.

Likewise, at the Vienna University of Economics and Business, in Austria, the case study revealed just how crucial communication is when laying the foundation for an IQA. It found that such a system is not merely a set of processes and instruments, but a much broader structure that facilitates dialogue, feedback and parameters for managing a relationships across the different levels of the University. 

Quality assurance ramps up as university sector expands in China


Quality assurance has gained significant momentum in China’s higher education sector. Today, universities enjoy greater autonomy to build their own quality assurance systems. This has come in parallel with expanded enrollment in higher education and the nation’s economic growth since the start of the millennium, as well as national concerns over the quality of the rapidly expanding higher education sector. However, despite these openings, many institutions are still unsure about the path towards implementing an IQA.

Integrating stakeholders at China’s XMU 


China’s Xiamen University is perhaps an exception with its IQA system that involves well-developed tools and processes that involve self-inspection, self-diagnosis, self-feedback, and self-modification. All of these elements are designed to engage a range of stakeholders – from students and graduates, current and retired professors, university leaders and administrators to employers – to monitor routine teaching activities, increase relevance vis-à-vis the labour market, and evaluate teaching quality. 

The case study, produced as part of the IIEP international study, found that awareness is a much-required perquisite for participation in these tools and processes.

“Our study shows that both the academic and administrative staff understood and recognized the university’s IQA policy and manual, saying that the IQA policy and manual were useful in guiding their work. In comparison, students indicated in focus group discussions that they had a lower level of understanding of the university’s IQA system, but they knew certain processes or tools, such as course evaluation, teachers’ supervision and meetings with staff, rather well. Students also expressed their wishes for greater access to information granted from these tools.”

Quality assurance bands together European universities


In Europe, quality assurance systems have proliferated in response to a concerted effort to increase the global competitiveness of higher education and promote the employability of its students. As a result of the Bologna Process, which commits European governments to pursue complementary reforms in the sector, all European countries, including Austria, were required to develop quality assurance systems, both nationally and at the institutional level.

The Vienna University of Economics and Business jumps on an opportunity


More specifically, the Austrian Universities Act of 2002 required universities to develop internal quality assurance systems, while leaving them considerably free in designing their own structures and cultures. WU, Austria’s fourth largest university, jumped on the opportunity and became one of the first Austrian university to successfully introduce an institutional system in 2004.

Putting dialogue at the centre


Communication is cornerstone to WU’s approach to quality assurance. The IQA system is grounded in both evidence from data and internal dialogue about quality. This means that the generation of data is not merely enough – without effective communication to the actors who need it most, no change or reform will take place. As a result, WU’s IQA system aims to create a quality of culture and ensure communication and organizational learning through various feedback loops.

Next steps: involving all stakeholders


Communicating on quality also means breaking down the information in ways that makes sense to the range of actors making up university life. For example, the case study found that students are only aware with some small parts of the overall system and are rarely informed of its achievements in boosting quality. As a result, the authors stressed the importance of engaging all stakeholders in a more meaningful way.

“Above all, infusing processes with meaning and helping actors to make sense of the organization and its relevant environment is, in our view, one of the most intriguing (and important) challenges for quality assurance systems in general.”

COMING SOON: The full case studies for both China and Austria will be available soon on the IIEP website.


Interested in IQA in different parts of the world? Read about our research in Bahrain and Germany and in Bangladesh and Kenya.