Conceptions of Quality and Approaches to Quality Assurance in Ontario’s Universities
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Many international, political, and economic influences led to increased demands for development of new quality assurance systems for universities. Like many policies and processes that aim to assure quality, Ontario’s Quality Assurance Framework (QAF) did not define quality. This study sought to explore conceptions of quality and approaches to quality assurance used within Ontario’s universities. A document analysis of the QAF’s rationale and structure suggested that quality was conceived primarily as fitness for purpose, while suggested indicators represented an exceptional conception of quality. Ontario universities perpetuated such confusion by adopting the framework without customizing it to their institutional conceptions of quality. Drawing upon phenomenographic traditions, a qualitative investigation was conducted to better understand various conceptions of quality held by university administrators and to appreciate ways in which they implemented the QAF. Three main approaches to quality assurance were identified: (a) Defending Quality, characterized by conceptions of quality as exceptional, which focuses on administrative accountability and uses a hands-off strategy to defend traditional notions of quality inputs and resources; (b) Demonstrating Quality, characterized by conceptions of quality as fitness for purpose and value for money, which focuses on accountability to students and uses centralized engaged strategies to demonstrate how programs meet current priorities and intended outcomes; and (c) Enhancing Quality, characterized by conceptions of quality as transformation, which focuses on reflection and learning experience and uses engaged strategies to find new ways of improving learning and teaching. The development of a campus culture that values the institution’s function in student learning and quality teaching would benefit from Enhancing Quality approaches to quality assurance. This would require holistic consideration of the beliefs held by members of the institution, a clear articulation of the institution’s conceptions of quality, and a critical analysis of how these conceptions align with institutional practices and policies.