The Paradox of Quality and the design of quality management systems in higher education

Document Type

Conference Proceeding




Faculty of Computing, Health and Science


School of Psychology and Social Science / Social Justice Research Centre




Cooper, T. (2003). The Paradox of Quality and the design of quality management systems in higher education. Proceedings of ANZSYS Conference. Melbourne VIC. ANZSYS. Available here


Researchers into quality management in commercial firms have identified a 'paradox of quality'. They have found that: many initially successful quality improvement programs fail to maintain their success; some successful quality improvement programs have unexpected and unwanted 'side effects' that reduce overall profitability of the company; implementation of successful quality improvement programs does not automatically translate into improvement in sales growth or profitability. This paper addresses the question of what, if anything, those responsible for designing quality management systems in Australian higher education can learn from research that seeks to explain the reasons for the quality paradox. This question is important because since the 1990 's Australian higher education has adopted commercial derived quality management techniques, and much time and effort may be saved if quality improvement programs in higher education can learn from quality management failures in the commercial sector. This paper is in four sections. The first section introduces the problem. The second section summarises and discusses the findings and analyses of the 'paradox of quality' as presented by Repenning and Sterman. The third section assesses their applicability to higher education and draws together the implications for higher education. The final section makes summarises the main findings, draws conclusions, makes recommendations about possible responses to these findings and makes recommendations about future research, suggesting that meanwhile those involved in Australian higher education should respond to these findings by applying the precautionary principle.