What is Academic Quality in Adult Higher Education?
By Dr. Ken Hunt

Higher education is one of the most important activities organized in modern societies. It creates a demanding but rewarding environment in which individuals may realize their creative and intellectual potential. Through high-level training across the disciplines, it equips people with the necessary knowledge, skills and values to play a wide range of social roles and to become effective citizens. Through research and the production of knowledge, higher education provides a society with the capacity to innovate, adapt and advance.

In fact, the ability of any higher education system to discharge these functions - to meet people's learning needs to develop and transmit appropriate skills, and to create relevant and useful knowledge - is a key index of a society's cultural, social and economic vitality and well-being.

There is a high correlation, globally, between excellent higher education and overall national achievements in development, growth, competitiveness and welfare. For the working adult, the crucial challenge is to ensure higher education can play this role: it can succeed in stimulating, directing and utilizing the creative and, intellectual energies of the working/adult population.

Warning! There is a failure of higher education to prepare students
for jobs in the 21st century

In the past colleges and universities developed higher education in the isolation and sanctuary of monasteries. That sanctuary helped the development of academic freedom and idealized the value of collaborative learning, but the image of higher education as distant, aloof, and singular is no longer an appropriate or productive image for the 21st-century university.

Still other critics are warning there is a failure of higher education to prepare students for jobs of the 21st century. Even employees already in the work force do not have the right skills for corporate needs of the future and nothing is being done to teach them. Because of the constantly changing job skills needed in our high-tech society, most college graduates will not be able to compete adequately by the year 2000 (Vella, 1995).

Some observers claim that universities are becoming more like corporations and corporations are becoming more like universities. The truth is the walls have been breached, and higher education is in the marketplace.Colleges and universities compete with business and industry for students, for accountants and engineers. Because what we do on the boundaries of our  society, how wide we set those boundaries, and how inclusively we define  tolerable behavior tells us how free we truly are as a nation. The academic sanctuary is important.

In other words, the academy's alliances with the real world are still limited by its essential function of protecting inquiry and criticism in all disciplines, whether it matters scientific, political, esthetic, or economic. And, it is still the case that the freedom of belief and speech, and the freedom to be critical, is more frequently, albeit not perfectly, protected in university settings rather than in corporate settings. It is, therefore, important to ask to what extent any proposed or operating linkage between the business and higher education communities may restrict or expand either institution's ability to define and enforce its own essence of proper behavior. That these boundaries and restrictions exist is readily acknowledged, providing a source of endlessly ebbing and flowing debate (Browne-Miller, 1995). Whether the present enthusiasm for post-secondary liaisons with the corporate community may be of such a scale as to force historic shifts in the relationship is a more immediate and substantial question.

The question is made even more complex by the fact that post-secondary institutions, having become increasingly dependent on federal and state government aids, are now battered by government regulations and declining enrollments among youth (Fetter, 1995). In the face of declining resources, institutions are turning toward corporations in search of sympathy, political allies, and new resources and enrollments, perhaps without thinking through the consequences of these alliances.

The question of how best to deliver higher education services to traditional students and working adults presents the issue of how well education is functioning to renew and improve the American labor force.

Forecasters, taking note of the constant changes in production and service industries, predict 20 million jobs in the United States will require different skills than are required today. Further, three out of every four workers will require retraining before the year 2000 (Rendon, et al., 1995).

Should workers expect higher education to equip them with training and skills that will be required by corporate America? Out of a sense of justice and to provide enough competent people to staff the work force, the higher education system must be open. It must not draw a line between the well-educated and the other half. All of societies' members must be educated. All people, whatever their origin or wealth, must have access to higher education and, through it, to upward mobility. More than ever, education will fuel our economy and shape our society.

Survival Skills for the Future

Dr.Jennifer James, (1993) in her discourse on Survival Skills for the Future offers a profound exegesis analysis as follows:

"…You have to learn to think in new ways, because your work has changed. I mean, typewriters used to do 100 words a minute. Word processors, computers, do 200 words a minute. Voice activated computers are going to do 300 words a minute. Your short-term memory can’t keep up.

I mean, how many of you are having trouble with your short-term memory? You walk across a room; you can’t remember why you’re there. You’ve forgotten your multiplication above seven. You’re having trouble with you spelling. Someone is walking down the hall toward you, you can’t remember who they are, and they’re an important client; they may even be your boss. Our short-term memory can’t keep up.

Imagine what it was like at the turn of the century. In a whole week, riding around on your horse on your farm, how much actually came into your brain, versus driving to work now, for a half an hour, listening to the radio. You can get some ideas of just the sheer multiplication of data. And your short-term memory can only hold five, plus or minus two items, at any one time. You put more in, and stuff falls out. Believe me, the only reason 25-year-olds can remember things is they have empty space. You have coming into your brain 400 times the data of a Renaissance man, and you have the same basic brain. We believe that intelligence is memory. Because when we were gathered around the campfire-and we didn’t even have pencils-the person that could remember the medical plants, who knew the oral traditions, who knew the game patterns, they were the most valuable person in the tribe. But we know now that memory is relatively low-level intelligence. I mean, we can teach pigeons to spell three-letter words. We’re now moving to a new kind of intelligence. Information retrieval, process, strategy, the ability to problem solve, the highest use of the brain of homo sapiens…"


Academic Quality

The pursuit of the principle of quality means maintaining and applying academic and educational standards, both in the sense of specific expectations and requirements that should be complied with and in the sense of ideals of excellence that should be aimed at. The definition of these expectations and ideals can differ from context to context, partly depending on the specific purposes pursued. Applying the principle of quality entails evaluating services and products against set standards, with a view to improvement, renewal or progress.

Distribution of Grades: The Normal Curve

The grades in Adult Higher Education Venues such as the University of Phoenix clearly are not distributed along a "normal" or bell shaped curve. The reason is, in an accelerated Active Learning curriculum, a "normal distribution" is the last thing one would expect, as Bloom (1981) explains in this quotation from Evaluation to Improve Learning.

"As educators we have used the normal curve in grading students for so long that we have come to believe in it. Achievement measures are designed to detect differences among our learners – even if the differences are trivial in terms of the subject matter. We then distribute our grades in a normal fashion. In any group of students we expect to have some small percentages received a grade of A. We are surprised when the figures differ greatly from about 10 percent. We are also prepared to fail an equal proportion of students. Quite frequently, this failure is determined by the rank order of the students in the group rather than by their failure to grasp the essential ideas of the course. Having become accustomed to the normal distribution, we set grade policies in these terms and are horrified when some teacher attempts to recommend a very different distribution of marks. Administrators are constantly on the alert to control teachers who are "too easy" or "too hard" in their grading……Finally, we proceed in our teaching as though only the minority of our students should be able to learn what we have to teach."

 Relative Grading

Relative grading is based on two assumptions: (1) one of the purposes of grading is to identify students who perform best against their peers and to weed out the unworthy, and (2) student performance, more or less, follows a normal distribution – the famous bell-shaped curve. Teachers who use relative grading point out that these systems correct for unanticipated problems (e.g. widespread absences due to a flu epidemic, tests that are too hard or too easy, or poor quality teaching) because the scale automatically moves up or down. Students like relative grading for much the same reason.

Absolute Grading

Absolute (criterion-referenced) grading is based on the idea that grades should reflect mastery of specific knowledge and skills. The teacher sets the criteria for each grade, and all students who perform at a given level receive the same grade.

The University of Phoenix realizes that higher education can no longer afford to simply herd students into educational holding pens, throw in a little mush and hope for the best. The University has devised core-competency based courses that prepare working adults to learn the specific things that they need to be able to do in order to earn a living and to serve as a responsible member of society. The core competencies are as follows:

The University of Phoenix Grading Philosophy

The bell curve does not ring true. In UOP programs, the bell curve is not used to distinguish students from their peers, with the best receiving A’s and the average receiving C’s. Grades issued by UOP, justly, measure how well students met course standards and their own potential.

"…At the Nevada Campus, we expect our students to do well. Plus, our grading philosophies contrast with the traditional idea of using grades to rank students from best to worst. If, for whatever reason, everybody in your class is doing very good or excellent work, everyone in your class can get A’s and B’s. The reason everybody can receive the same grade is that the instructors look at how well students’ master the materials they are presented in our accelerated programs. To do otherwise and grade students in relation to each other could mean that a student who did better than everyone else would get an A even if the student did not meet the standards..." ( Hunt,1999).

What then, is Academic Quality? Harvey’s ( 1999) praecognita of Academic Quality covers a wide array of the aspects of higher education including the following:

Learning and teaching:





External links:

This is a quite staggering degree of examination, which has grown up rapidly over the last decade and reflects the intrusion of the evaluative state into all areas of public life (Neave, 1998).


Responsibility for Quality and Standards

The semper paratus of quality control for Adult Higher Education in Regionally Accredited College’s and Universities should be explicit, comprehensive and documented in detail. There should be rigorous standards.

The academic quality measurement at the University of Phoenix in all of its programs, or elements of programs, leading to a degree or other higher education award has at its simplest level, encouraged or even forced compliance in the production of information, be it statistical data, prospectuses, or course documents. Such compliance means that taken-for-granted practices and procedures have had to be confronted and clearly documented. It represents the minimum required shift from an entirely producer-oriented approach to higher education to one that acknowledges the rights of other stakeholders to minimum information and a degree of ‘service’.’(Harvey, 1998b).

The awarding institution accepts responsibility for the quality of its programs as a whole by assuring the quality and standards of the teaching provided, of systematic syntagma student support and of other learning support facilities.

The quality control of approved Adult Higher Education Institutions should be explicit, comprehensive and documented. The Academic Quality measurements should include provision for:


 Excellence in Education

A traditional concept linked to the idea of ‘excellence’, usually operationalized as exceptionally high standards of academic achievement. Quality is achieved if the standards are surpassed. Perfection or consistency focuses on process and sets specifications that it aims to meet. Quality in this sense is summed up by the interrelated ideas of zero defects and getting things right the first time. (Harvey, L. and Green, D., 1993)

Fitness for purpose

Fitness for purpose judges quality in terms of the extent to which a productor service meets its stated purpose. The purpose may be customer-defined to meet requirements or (In-education) institution-defined to reflect institutional mission or course objectives. ( Harvey, L., 1990).

Value for money

Value for money assesses quality in terms of return on investment or expenditure. At the heart of the value-for-money approach in education is the notion of accountability. Public services, including education, are expected to be accountable to the funders. Increasingly, students are also considering their own investment in higher education in value-for-money terms (Harvey, L. and Macdonald, M., 1993)


Transformation sees quality as a process of change, which in higher education adds value to students through their learning experience. Education is not traditionally a service for a customer but an ongoing process of transformation of the participant. This leads to two notions of transformative quality in education: enhancing the consumer and empowering the consumer overlapping constructs.

It has been suggested transformation is a meta-quality concept and other concepts such as perfection, high standards, fitness for purpose and value for money are possible (although not very good) operationalizations of the transformative process rather than ends in themselves (Harvey, 1994, p. 51; Harvey & Knight, 1996, pp. 14–15).

Academic standards

The academic standard demonstrated ability to meet specified level of academic attainment. For andragogy, the ability of students to be able to do those things designated as appropriate at a given level of education. Usually, the measured competence of an individual in attaining specified (or implied) course aims and objectives, operationalized via performance on assessed pieces of work. For research, the ability to undertake effective scholarship or produce new knowledge, which is assessed via peer recognition. (Harvey, L. and Knight, P., 1996)

Standards of competence

Demonstration that a specified level of ability on a range of competencies has been achieved. Competencies may include general transferable skills required by employers; academic (‘higher level’) skills implicit or explicit in the attainment of degree status or in a post-graduation academic apprenticeship; particular abilities congruent with induction into a profession (Horsburgh, 1999).


Service standards

Are measures devised to assess identified elements of the service provided against specified benchmarks. Elements assessed include activities of service providers and facilities within which the service takes place. Benchmarks specified in ‘contracts’ such as student charters tend to be quantified and restricted to measurable items. Post hoc measurement of customer opinions (satisfaction) is used as indicators of service provision. Thus, service standards in higher education parallel consumer standards (Harvey, L., 1995).


Harvey and Mason, (1995) define standards as measures of what is achieved, usually outcome standards. (Although, of course, value-added evaluations depend on the measurement of some form of input standards against which the output standard can be compared).

The ‘politics of quality’

The ‘politics of quality’ refers to the macro and micro agendas that accompany the introduction of quality monitoring procedures. It is naive to think quality monitoring is not linked to political agendas. Indeed, Alvesson & Willmott, (1996, p. 11), suggest that the achievement of quality in higher education ‘is essentially political in origin’. The politics, though, are concealed behind a facade that suggests "achieving quality" is amenable to technical and bureaucratic solutions’ (Harvey, L., 1995b).

Thus, any evaluation of academic quality systems needs to unravel the politics of quality. Equally, there is also a need, as in any social science, to explore the values and political agendas of researchers as well as those who commissioned the research.

At the risk of oversimplification, academic quality models can be seen to have three underlying rationales, each of which have political implications. Academic Quality is used to ensure or encourage:


With pressure on budgets and a growing ethos of evaluation, higher education has had to become more accountable for the money it receives. In effect, this means that higher education must not only be explicit about where it spends the money, but also must endeavor to provide good value for the money it receives.

The ‘politics of quality’ might also include the role quality monitoring has in introducing value-for-money practices, or redistributing limited resources on the basis of an apparent value-for-money exercise, such as a research assessment exercise where money is concentrated in institutions that provide ‘excellent’ research output, or, as Lee and Harley suggest, concentrated in institutions that adhere to a particular paradigm.



Academic Quality also encourages compliance to (emerging or existing) Government Policy and Regional Accrediting preferences or the preferences or policy of stakeholders such as professional bodies and employer lobbies. Government is usually the most important and powerful as far as higher education goes because it supplies so much of the money and in many cases controls the licensing of institutions. Governments around the United States are looking for higher education to be more responsive, including: making higher education more relevant to social and economic needs widening access to higher education; expanding numbers, usually in the face of decreasing unit cost; ensuring comparability of provision and procedures, within and between institutions, including international comparisons; responding to value for money imperatives (Barrow, 1999).

Quality’ has been used as a tool to ensure some degree of compliance to these overt political agendas as well as to less overt ones, such as attempts to reduce the autonomy of and questioning the extent to which mass higher education is producing ‘work-ready’ graduates.


Academic Quality is usually seen as leading to improvements in the quality of processes or the standards of outcomes. On the surface, improvement appears to be an uncontentious goal. However, once we ask what is to be improved in what ways? and for whose benefit? then the political dimension is immediately evident. Value-for-money improvements may, for example, not be congruous with transformative improvement. (Vroeijenstijn, 1995; Middlehurst & Woodhouse, 1995).


There is a need for more research into the efficacy of Academic Quality in adult higher education. There is scope for research that: explores how agencies mediate their brief in practice; addresses the micro-politics of Academic Quality undertakes rich detailed analyses of implementation and important starts from the transformative learning of the student and critically  deconstructs the politics and ideology of the learning situation.

The crucial feature is what constitutes a valuable process in the measurement of academic quality. Harvey (1995) suggests it needs to be one undertaken in a spirit of responsiveness to stakeholders — new collegialism rather than cloisterism. There is growing concern about the articulation between formal managerialist structures, and less formal collegiate processes. A recurring theme is the dissolution of trust between academics and managers (Trow, 1994, 1996).

While managerialist structures are common in the non-traditional milieu, external monitoring still tends to be perceived by some adjunct faculty, as reinforcing managerialism and as compromising mutual trust.

In particular, there is a shortage of research into the impact on the

student experience. There is a lack of research that starts from the transformative learning of the student and attempts to unravel an array of interrelated ‘factors’. However, such research should not become preoccupied with building and Validating static causal models or systems. Rather, what is needed is research that critically deconstructs the politics and ideology of the learning situation .It would be timely to develop a University of Phoenix system wide collaborative and comparative study to evaluate quality issues.

Works Cited

Alvesson, M. & Willmott, H., (1996), Making Sense of Management. A critical Introduction, London, Sage.

Bloom, S. (1981) Evaluation to improve learning New York : McGraw-Hill

Barrow, (1999) Quality management systems and dramaturgical compliance’, Quality in Higher Education, 5 (1), pp. 27-36

Browne-Miller, A. (1995). Shameful admissions: The losing battle to serve everyone in our universities. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Dearlove, J., (1995), ‘Collegiality, managerialism and leadership in English universities, Tertiary Education and Management, 2 (2): 161–69.

Fetter, J. (1995). Questions and admission. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.

Harvey, L. Evaluating the evaluators, Opening keynote of the Fifth Biennial Conference of the International Network of Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education May, 1999.

Harvey, L. and Green, D., (1993), ‘Defining quality’, Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education: An International Journal, 18, no. 1.

Harvey, L. and Knight, P., (1996), Transforming Higher Education. Buckingham Open University Press and Society for Research into Higher Education.

Harvey, L. and Macdonald, M., (1993), Doing Sociology: A Practical Introduction. London, Macmillan.

Harvey, L. and Mason, S., (1995), The Role of Professional Bodies in Higher Education Quality Monitoring. Birmingham: QHE.

Harvey, L., (1990), Critical Social Research. London, Unwin Hyman.

Harvey, L., (1995), ‘The new collegialism: improvement with accountability’, Tertiary Education and Management, 2 (2), pp. 153–60.

Harvey, L., (1995b), ‘Editorial:’ Quality in Higher Education, 1(1), pp. 1–12

Horsburgh, M., (1999), ‘Quality monitoring in higher education: the impactOn student learning’, Quality in Higher Education, 5(1), pp. 9–26

Hunt, K. (1999), The Evils of Grading on a Curve, Nevada Campus Academic Issues, available at: http://faculty.uophx.edu/nevadafac/Ken/Ken4.htm

James, J. (1993) Survival Skills for the Future, Enterprise Media; Cambridge, MA

Lee, F.S. and Harley, S., (1998), ‘Economics divided: the limitations of peer review in paradigm-bound social science’, in Jary, D. and Parker, M., (Eds.), 1998, The Higher Education: Issues and directions for the post-Dearing university, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire University Press, pp. 185–204.

Middlehurst, R. & Woodhouse, D., (1995), ‘Coherent systems for external quality Assurance’, Quality in Higher Education, 1(3), pp. 257–68.

Neave, G., (1998), ‘The evaluative state reconsidered’, European Journal of Higher Education, 33(3),

Rendon, L. & Associates (1995). Educating a new majority. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Silver, H., (1993), External Examiners: Changing Roles?. London: CNAA.

Terwillinger, J. S. (1989) Classroom standard setting and grading practices. Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice, 8, 2.

Trow, M., (1994), Managerialism and the Academic Profession: Quality and Control. London, Open University Press.

Trow, M., (1995), ‘Aspects of quality in higher education’ in Trow, M., (1995), Two Essays on Quality in Higher Education. Stockholm, Kanslersämbetets Skriftserie1995: 2, pp. 7–27.

Trow, M., (1996), ‘Trust, markets and accountability in higher education: a comparative perspective’, Higher Education Policy, 9(4) pp. 309–324

Vella, J. (1995). Training through dialogue: Promoting effective learning and change with adults. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Vroeijenstijn, A.I. (1995), Improvement and Accountability, Navigating Between Scylla and Charybdis: Guide for external quality assessment in higher education. London, Jessica Kingsley.

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