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30 August 2022

Defining what we mean by ‘quality’ education


Professor Tom Ward

Pro Vice-Chancellor, Education, Newcastle University

Quality, along with global, impact, excellence, and other talismanic words, features heavily when universities talk to, or about themselves. In practice its use is almost universal. I once found myself trying to nudge an institution out of the habit of describing high tariff applicants as ‘high quality’, saying ‘all our students are high quality, and some are high tariff’, and realised I meant precisely that.

In the noisy and complex history of politics, sector bodies, mission groups, sustainability issues, regulators it is a little too easy to forget the point. It is our remarkable - our high quality - students who make the life-changing decision to trust us with years of their time and who take on substantial debt for their studies, who should be at the centre of any discussion about higher education.


Along with its ubiquity, quality means different things to different people. From my point of view, it is about how we most effectively combine expertise and capabilities in education and research with dedication and care for students to equip and empower them for the next stage of their lives. For a politician dealing with concerned constituents, it could -understandably - mean providing students with enough easily measured hours of didactic lectures. For the Treasury – legitimately - it could be best measured as a return on public investment via future salaries. For a student it might mean a mixture of the level of relevance and excitement in the curriculum, opportunities to co-create their educational experiences, and the responsiveness of the staff they encounter. For people making decisions about what university to work at, it could involve a mix of education and research rankings and the presence and power of specific research groups.


All views are problematic, starting with mine. Having held responsibility for education on the executives of four different universities, I remain unable to create, bottle or measure the magic that happens in the life-changing lecture, laboratory, seminar, group project or moment of private study. Like Justice Potter Stewart, I know it when I see it but struggle to even define it. The politician fretting about didactic lecture time may be eager to support more innovative pedagogical approaches - but will be anxious about being able to pin down the metrics in that creative world that reassure them about the intensity and value of the educational experience that the children of their constituents’ experience. The Treasury also struggles: Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) and other data may be readily to hand, but it seems more than difficult to really measure even the most narrowly defined economic impact of the consequences, decades later, of a student learning to see theatre from new perspectives, or encountering the thrilling realisation that knowledge is alive, and that they have a right to contribute to its ongoing creation. Difficult enough, even before any attempt is made to place value on the contribution higher education makes to society through our globally engaged, climate aware, critical thinking graduates as citizens not workers.


Applicants and students are sometimes grappling with high levels of anxiety and economic insecurity alongside intense academic study and may find it difficult to see the value of experiences until they are viewed in hindsight years later. Despite headlines about groupthink, the most striking feature of the remarkable people who choose to work in higher education is surely the great diversity of motivations, personal circumstances, and happenstance behind how an individual ends up working in a specific institution. Looking back over the chain of events that led to my current role, I do not see a robust chain of steel links stamped with the word quality, but instead a forest through which I swung on vines without map or compass.


‘Different meanings for different people’ is perhaps a polite way to acknowledge that quality in higher education is always contested. Looking back over the quarter century that the QAA has been in existence, my biggest regret is that the sector itself has not been effective in defining quality or in calling out and challenging instances where it is inadequate. Higher education in the UK, in all its glorious diversity, is something we rightly celebrate - but we cannot complain about regulatory intervention and ‘boots on the ground’ rhetoric unless we visibly ask more of ourselves than our students, funders, regulators, and political masters do.


This blog has been produced by the author as part of our ‘QAA at 25’ series of conversations on quality. Our Chief Executive Officer, Vicki Stott kicked off the series earlier this year through Defining Quality, a policy note published by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) which unpacked the meaning of quality in a complex and rapidly changing higher education sector.


If you would be interested in contributing to this series, please contact Kevin McStravock, PR, Press and Communications Officer on