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International business schools and the search for quality

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By Margaret Adolphus


Business education has become a highly competitive area: there are currently around 10,000 business schools worldwide, each serving a vastly mobile student population.

According to Chris Greensted, a former dean and current associate director of the European Foundation for Management Development's (EFMD) quality services department, the only way to survive in such an environment is to provide high quality programmes (Greensted, 2008).

But what is quality? The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines quality as "the degree of excellence of a thing", or a "general excellence" – which then, of course, begs a definition of excellence.

Perhaps because of this essential intangibility, there is a great deal of activity around quality in higher education, which has become an industry in itself.

Take, for example, higher education in the UK, which is characterized by a high degree of regulation: internal reviews complemented by external teaching, and research reviews by separate organizations (e.g. the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education and funding councils), while yet further organizations accredit professional qualifications in marketing, accountancy, and other business related functions.

Understanding "quality"

Perhaps "quality" in business education can best be understood in terms of the student experience, i.e. one where the student emerges from the course fully equipped with the knowledge, skills and attitude necessary to flourish in the modern world, having learnt from both faculty and peers.

Throughout the school he or she is supported by excellent teaching faculty with good research records and up-to-date contacts with industry.

Furthermore, there are plenty of opportunities for work placements, and career advice is on hand. The library is state of the art. The learning experience is engaging, with plenty of debate among colleagues. Finally he or she has the opportunity to feed back on every aspect of the course, and hence enhance even further the experience for future students.

But how are such standards of excellence measured and maintained? All too often, quality assurance, as the measurement of quality is known, is a matter of checking the standards of whichever body is responsible for funding, and then ticking the boxes.

However, Chris Greensted (2008) believes that this isn't enough: quality should become a way of life, embedding itself within the school and gaining the support of the dean and senior management.

Quality in higher education has probably been less researched than in business generally, but two British academics have explored quality management and enhancement processes in UK business schools. Here is their definition of quality assurance:

"The term quality assurance refers to the policies, processes and actions through which quality is maintained and developed (McKimm, 2003). It is concerned with addressing the issue of product or service non-conformance, it involves ensuring fitness for purpose (Lomas, 2004)" (Hodgkinson and Kelly, 2007: p. 78).

They also differentiate between:

  • management for quality, the process whereby the quality of product or service is achieved, and
  • quality management, which is the quality of the processes themselves.

They maintain that there are three simple questions which are central to the quality management process (Hodgkinson and Kelly, 2007: p. 79):

  1. What are we trying to achieve?
  2. How well are we doing?
  3. How could we do it better?
Attempts to answer the last question lead inevitably to the issue of quality enhancement, which is improvement to quality, adding value, going beyond "fit for purpose". It is further suggested that quality enhancement, not assurance, should be the aim, for that way assurance will automatically be achieved.

Those who write in the British context, where universities are dominated by research, are anxious to highlight the importance and complexity of the teaching function, and therefore of staff development, continuing professional development, and innovation (Elton, 2001, quoted in Hodgkinson and Kelly, 2007: p. 79).

Editor's note

The author gives her sincere thanks to Chris Greensted, associate director of the quality services department, European Foundation for Management Development, for his help with this article.