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International business schools and the search for quality

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Internal quality control

The steps taken by a business school to assure its own quality processes will, to a certain extent, differ according to the political environment within which it finds itself.

The UK, as we have seen, is over-regulated, with bodies for teaching, research, and professional qualifications. In Australia, there is one main body – the Australian Universities Quality Agency, which conducts audits on teaching, learning, quality and management. The South African Council on Higher Education has a similar role.

Taking responsibility

However, external bodies cannot guarantee quality on their own; the institution must take responsibility. Quality is not just something to be concerned about when an external inspection looms: it should be present in every process, whether teaching and learning, research, or administration and support.

Chris Greensted believes that schools should have a formal management system for quality improvement, alongside other functions such as research, teaching and learning, marketing and finance. The system should set standards and performance indicators, take action where necessary, and require reporting on a regular basis. The best quality systems should also strike a balance between being formal and having a "light touch", avoiding heavy bureaucracy (Greensted, 2008).

This does not, however, always happen. In fact, it was the weakness of quality management systems in business education that motivated some British business schools to form a consortium dedicated to its improvement. And while the (now defunct) Quality in Business Education project (QuBE) was obviously rooted in the British situation, its recommendations and research have a far wider relevance.

The project studied a range of business education providers and worked with key stakeholders (teachers, students, university managers, employers and quality management professionals). It found a great variety in standards: some schools were extraordinary, others needed to improve. It also found that quality, all too often, meant ticking boxes off some simple quality control system, rather than being concerned with the student experience; and that while data might be collected, they were not used to solve problems.

Business schools had a number of different attitudes towards quality:

  • They were unsatisfactory: they recognized that quality was a problem, but had no system in place to monitor it.
  • They were beginning to tackle the quality problem, but in a fragmented and ineffective way.
  • They were implementing a quality system, but as compliance rather than enhancement.
  • They were at the stage of quality enhancement: quality was embedded in the culture.
  • They were exemplar schools.

"The Dean's Dilemma"

The project also provided a number of diagnostic, awareness-raising and problem-solving tools which schools could use themselves to improve their quality. These included a management game, "The Dean’s Dilemma", a board game in which players take it in turn to make a key operational decision in a way that reinforces the institution’s quality policy.

Quality systems models

One of the most interesting reports is one which describes models on which quality systems can be based.

Hodgkinson and Kelly (2007) reviewed a number of models as described in Table I:

Table showing models and processes employed for quality assurance purposes in HEIs.

Table I. Models and processes employed for quality assurance purposes in higher education institutions

Each of these models has its strengths. Total Quality Management is an organization-wide approach used extensively in business, and has been advocated as an appropriate model for higher education. The European Framework for Quality Management is similarly holistic, although balanced scorecard is sometimes preferred because it translates vision into objectives, measures and targets in four different areas:

  1. finance
  2. customer
  3. internal business
  4. innovation and learning.

Methods 1-3 in Table I are fairly complex and wieldy to implement, so methods 4-7 are sometimes preferred as they are smaller scale and easier to manage. The authors, however, maintain that none of the approaches on its own is sufficient and argue for a multi-paradigmatic perspective, in which methods are used in conjunction with one another so as to complement each others' deficiencies.

They quote procedures arising out of a previous case study (Hodgkinson and Brown, 2003) as going some way towards meeting their recommended approach:

  • Hold a number of structured workshops and meetings to raise awareness of issues.
  • Listen to staff from all over the organization equally, and make sure there are no barriers between academic, administrative and support staff.
  • Do not just look at what is wrong: celebrate success.
  • Ensure that you have senior management backing: get deans and heads of departments to attend seminars and provide briefings. Note that if they are not committed to quality, then the school won't be either.
  • Take a gradualist approach and don't rush things.
  • Know what you – as a school – value, and work towards it.

Most important is to involve the whole of the school, so that the culture of quality permeates the organization.