The Importance of Leadership in Quality Assurance of Higher Education

soldier-9Written and presented by Dr J.P. Nel



Five leadership qualities are needed in quality assurance:

  1. Visionary thinking.
  2. Professional conduct.
  3. Ethical conduct.
  4. Regular and open communication.
  5. Innovation.
  6. Personal example.


Visionary thinking is the ability to foresee the implications of our actions and intentions. A leader in quality should, for example, understand that education and training should be oriented internationally. This is important to ensure that the education and training offered in South Africa is on par with, if not better than, education and training offered in countries with mature and advanced educational systems.

A leader in quality assurance should motivate and inspire quality assurance practitioners as well as role players in education and training, i.e. learning institutions.

A balanced approached to quality should be maintained. This stretches from micro issues, such as a library or training aids, to macro issues, such as infrastructure and financial planning.

As education and training, quality assurance should also be contextualised to the values and culture of learning institutions. It is a known fact that people learn better if they are familiar and comfortable with the culture, including language, in which learning content is offered.

Quality aims should be embedded in a vision, mission and strategic goals if long term growth is to be achieved.


Quality in higher education is not dependent on quality criteria only, but also on the situational context, i.e. cultural considerations as well as the nature of the learning offered.

Leaders in quality assurance should set the example and ensure that all quality assurance officials act in a professional manner. One should guard against a “one size fits all” approach to the evaluation of quality. Quality measuring instruments should be flexible enough to cater for different situational contexts, taking cultural considerations, learning content, historical issues, political issues and academic issues into consideration.


There is no room for dishonesty in quality assurance. Quality assurance should have as aims the enhancement of the learning experience, protection of the image of the educators and learning institution. However, most importantly, quality assurance should be done with the aim of protecting and promoting the interests of the students.


A leader in quality assurance will see to it that those who are on the receiving end of evaluation will not be kept in the dark. Guidance and support is a critical part of quality assurance and this should be communicated with learning institutions. Feedback should be honest, valid and properly motivated.

Establishing and sustaining a quality culture involves an on-going commitment, at all levels, to the underpinning believes, values and knowledge that drive quality in higher education.

Leadership in quality assurance means working with other people to set and achieve objectives, and to organise and co-ordinate the implementation of strategies.

It also entails delegation and control, doing evaluation and providing feedback.

It is the responsibility of the leader to establish a constructive quality culture and to replace resistance with a spirit of cooperation and trust. This requires an on-going commitment at all levels in the learning process.


Quality assurance and the development of higher education are fundamental instruments in supporting the transition to a knowledge-based society. Quality assurance is driven by values, believes and knowledge.

Negative quality assurance will lead to performitivity. How many of you have not witnessed learning institutions that generate stacks of paper because they know that the quality assuror confuses volume with quality? An emerging private provider whom we helped to build capacity once complained to me about a verifier that visited them. They did not offer much training yet, so they put all the exam papers and practical assignments in a box. The verifier came into the office, picked up the box, weighed it in his hands and said: “I cannot endorse your assessments – the box is not heavy enough” – then he left.

The same applies to huge buildings, libraries with thousands of books that are outdated or irrelevant. A professor from one of our universities did a site visit at Mentornet some five years ago. During the tea break he went outside to where a number of delegates who were attending a one-day workshop were having tea. He walked up to one of the delegates and asked him: “How often do you visit the library?” Fortunately the delegate clicked what was going on, so he replied: “At least one hour per week.” He has been one of our best facilitators ever since.

Leadership in quality assurance is strongly situational. Therefore, quality assurance always needs to be done in the right context, taking into consideration the size of the provider, the type and number of courses they offer, the profile of the students, etc. When I studies for a second doctoral degree I visited the university library three times. I could find only two books that were relevant to my studies in the entire library and I could not find more than one or two paragraphs that I could use in each of the books.


Keep in mind that, every time you evaluate a learning institution they also evaluate you.

Quality assurors and quality assurance will always be regarded with suspicion. People don’t always trust anybody who will judge them and we need to gain their trust by showing them that we are there to help them and not to persecute.

Quality assurance must always be done in a positive and supportive manner. Ruling by fear can never be acceptable. If learning institutions fear quality assurance they will resist it and perhaps even try to destroy the system.

Quality assurance should be conducted with the intention of enhancing the learning experience and to protect the image of the learning institution as well as the individuals involved in the institution. More importantly, though, is the protection and promotion of the interests of the students.

One of the primary responsibilities of a leader in quality assurance is to establish a constructive quality culture, i.e. to replace the resistance that people might have to quality assurance with a spirit of cooperation and trust.


The roles of leaders in quality assurance are crucial to improving mutual trust. Keep in mind that a leader always deals with people with their individual characteristics and capabilities, problems and individual perceptions. We cannot divorce people from leadership and leaders have a responsibility to serve.

Leadership in quality assurance requires a shared and supporting approach – it requires cooperation, the ability to manage quality, a well-structured organisation and the support of all stakeholders in higher education.

Leaders in quality assurance should always set the example. You cannot require learning institutions to maintain quality if you don’t.

Most importantly, remember that quality assurance is about protecting and promoting the interests of the students.

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