Reading about quality cultures in academia (Harvey & Stensaker, 2008)

With my new job as academic developer at Lund University, I’m reading even more about changing academic cultures than before (but don’t worry, I have a couple of wave watching posts in the works, too!). Just now, I read about “Quality culture: Understandings, boundaries and linkages.” by Harvey & Stensaker, 2008.

The article first starts out with describing that “culture” is a term that has many different meanings depending on the context it developed in and is used in — it can be about artistic endeavours as much as it can be about describing traditions or pattern of ideas. This whole part went a bit above my head, but the next part, discussing the term “quality”, was really interesting to me, especially applied to how we understand quality in higher education. There are five ways the term “quality” is used in this context:

  • exceptional: Quality means going above and beyond what is expected; we are the best of the best. This is something I encounter a lot in academia: everything has to be exceptionally good, and better than last time and everybody else, in order to be deemed acceptable. Moving goal posts…
  • perfection or consistency: Quality means knowing what the measures for success are and meeting them every time without fail, but those measures staying (mostly) the same over time.
  • fitness for purpose: Quality means meeting practical internal or external requirements, like learning outcomes or accreditation criteria: someone or something does what they are supposed to do.
  • value for money: Quality means that funders, including students, feel that they receive adequate return on their investment.
  • transformation: Quality means supporting a process of change in students, enhancing and/or empowering them throughout their time at university.

Looking at these different understandings of what quality means, it is not surprising that the perception of quality of any given project or product can differ widely. And it makes it very clear that agreeing on what understanding of quality one wants to base discussions is necessary for constructive dialogue.

Based on these different understandings of both culture and quality, and looking at the two axis of control being located with the individual vs the group, and rules being mainly internal vs external, four different “ideal-types” of quality cultures are distinguished in the article:

  • responsive quality culture, with a high degree of group control and strong external rules, where impulses from the outside are mostly taken up as opportunities and only sometimes are perceived as imposed and constricting ownership and degrees of freedom;
  • reactive quality culture, with a low degree of group-control and strong external rules, where measures of quality are imposed from the outside and are dealt with when necessary, but not in an integrated way;
  • regenerative quality culture, with a high degree of group control and weak external rules, where external expectations are incorporated as far as they are perceived useful to further the internal agenda;
  • reproductive quality culture, with both weak group control and external rules, where the status quo is maintained with as little influence from the outside as possible.

I found reading about those four types quite eye-opening, as I definitely recognise different previous workplaces in several of these descriptions. Most interestingly, reading about the regenerative quality culture after two quality cultures that I could understand and come up with examples for, but didn’t really vibe with, felt like I had found my way of thinking. Especially with the last sentence “…if regeneration stalls or is interfered with externally, be it by a higher layer of management or by an external force, the quality culture will have an intrinsic subversive potential.” :-D

Having read about these definitions of both quality and quality cultures is definitely useful both in terms of becoming more aware of my own assumptions about what those terms mean, and going forward also for making it explicit how I use the term when talking to others, and enquiring how they use it. That’s actually going to be very interesting to see!


Harvey, L., & Stensaker, B. (2008). Quality culture: Understandings, boundaries and linkages. European journal of Education, 43(4), 427-442.

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