Trust Between Quality Assurance Agencies and Higher Education Institutions and its Implications for Quality Management Models

Rediet Abebe

Research output: Book/ReportDoctoral thesisMonograph


The present study has two aims. The first is to explore to what extent quality assurance agencies trust higher education institutions with respect to the quality and quality assurance in higher education. The other is to analyse what implications this may have for the nature of the quality management models used in higher education systems. In doing so, the study taps into relevant gaps in the literature and introduces an unexplored area of research in the quality assurance of higher education. The discussion on broad conceptual and theoretical issues pertaining to trust, accountability and quality assurance set the scene for the empirical inquiry which focused on the context of Ethiopian higher education.

Due to the lack of suitable and unified theories which could integrate the exploration of trust and quality management, the study constructed a theoretical and analytical framework through a review of relevant literature located within and outside higher education. This framework combined the conceptual dimensions of trust, perspectives on trust building, selected insights from Gamson’s theory on power and trust, and quality management models.

The empirical investigation employed qualitative method. The study applied a multiple case study design consisting of six case higher education institutions that were carefully selected to draw a sample which more closely represents the nuances and institutional diversity present in Ethiopian higher education. The data collection relied on semi-structured interviews and focus group discussion, numerous documents and additional secondary data from non-academic outlets. The extensive data gathered from primary and secondary sources was analysed thematically which involved with-in and cross-case analysis.

The study found that the quality assurance agency in Ethiopia (i.e. HERQA) attributes a contrasting overall trustworthiness to public and private institutions as explored based on the dimensions of concern, capacity, openness and risk. HERQA views public higher education institutions as more trustworthy compared to their private counterparts that are perceived negatively and with suspicion. The empirical evidence from the case studies, however, suggested that HERQA’s trust in public institutions may have been misplaced. The study also revealed trends of widespread deception, dishonest reporting and violations of regulations among private institutions. Their profit-maximisation motive is increasingly viewed as a major source of concerns for quality. Furthermore, it was found that HERQA’s acute capacity limitations, application of dichotomous quality requirements for public and private institutions, perceived conflicts of interest and lack of autonomy and widespread allegations of corruption create barriers for higher education institutions to trust the agency.

The study findings further revealed that HERQA’s weak trust in private institutions accounts for more demand for the use of control and regulation mechanisms, whereas the strong trust in public institutions explains its reliance more on the perceived shared values and norms. The findings indicated a combined application of the rationalist-instrumentalist and the normative-cognitive mechanisms of trust building. Additionally, the previous experiences and encounters of HERQA’s quality assurance experts with, be it, deception and violations of regulations or responsible operation and commendable commitment to quality seem to inform their expectations, vigilance and overall approach to subsequent evaluations. Moreover, the study revealed the dominance of the accountability- oriented quality management and the slow progress in quality enhancement. The contrasting trust attributed to public and private institutions seems to explain HERQA’s application of dichotomous accreditation requirements and other discriminatory regulations for the two sectors. As such, private institutions are largely subjected to more accountability-oriented requirements in the form of stringent programme accreditation and surprise on-site inspections, while public institutions, until its recent discontinuation, have undergone a more enhancement-oriented evaluation of institutional quality audit.

The study concludes that trust could be a fundamental ingredient, but undoubtedly not the only factor, which may shape the nature of quality management models. The findings emphasise the continued significance of balancing the accountability and enhancement orientations in quality management to present-day higher education systems. The results from this study bear implications for theory, method, policy and practice and further research in the areas of trust and quality assurance. It highlights the overall scarcity of theoretical and empirical explorations of trust in higher education.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationTampere
PublisherTampere University
ISBN (Electronic)978-952-03-1869-7
ISBN (Print) 978-952-03-1868-0
Publication statusPublished - 2021
Publication typeG4 Doctoral dissertation (monograph)

Publication series

NameTampere University Dissertations - Tampereen yliopiston väitöskirjat
ISSN (Print)2489-9860
ISSN (Electronic)2490-0028


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