Contributions of a human development approach to re-visioning the quality of universities

BONI, Alejandra (2009)

In this article, Alejandra Boni, Studies Group on Development, Cooperation and Ethics, Department of Projects Engineering of the Technical University of Valencia, and Des Gasper, Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, propose a matrix to interpret universities’ activities and achievements in teaching, researching and social engagement, with reference to human development core values.

University quality and its measurement have been on the agenda of university policy since the 1980s (Vroeijenstijn 1995). Due to the increase in societal demand for higher education, the diverse skills required in the context of globalization (exploratory skills, exploitation skills, management skills, moral and ethical skills, etc.), and the processes of internationalization and diversification in higher education, a growing concern has emerged regarding the quality of higher education inputs, processes and outcomes (Sanyal and Martin 2007).

Not only definition of quality is a controversial issue. Also, the measurement and management of quality is contentious. Central to the establishment of quality management and assessment systems, whether national or institutional, are questions of power and values (Brennan and Shah, 2000).

In these tensions among different values, we suggest that the perspective of Human Development (HD)—as articulated by UNDP and by authors such as Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum amongst others--could be a good ethical framework to propose quality dimensions of universities, if one wants to go beyond narrow interpretations of values of effectiveness and efficiency and to incorporate the criteria of social relevance.

In the matrix below (Figure 1) we suggest several dimensions to interpret universities’ activities and achievements in teaching, researching and social engagement, with reference to HD core values. We have selected also the internal governance, policies, and physical environment of universities, because we believe these are important aspects of the human development of university members due to their connections with core values of HD, as we show in the matrix below.

We have to justify the selection of the values of HD that appear in the matrix. We have chosen well-being, participation and empowerment, equity and diversity and sustainability. This proposal is based on the work of Penz et al (2008, 2010) who identify six core values that have come to frame debates over human development over the past 50 years: human well-being and security; equity; empowerment; human rights; cultural freedom; and environmental sustainability. The only of these sets of values we have not included is human rights, since it overlaps substantially with the others. Many of the aspects that would be grouped under this concept are included for example under our values of equity and diversity.

When we cross the core values of HD with the different university activities, we identify several aspects that could be followed-up via concrete indicators. The selection and definition of indicators will depend on the instrument we choose for measuring or assessing quality, for example whether the instrument is a ranking or an evaluation or an accreditation. The matrix is, then, only a first step that must be followed by a second stage in which the most suitable instrument for a particular exercise will be chosen.

With these aspects and criteria in mind, the next step is try to think which kind of instruments to assess University quality can better incorporate an HD perspective. Of course, the availability of data, the costs of producing these instruments, and the input, output and process dimensions of quality must be considered.[2] These details require a separate discussion, but what should be stressed here is that we must also reinterpret not only the concept of quality but the procedures for quality assessment.


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Boni, A and Peréz-Foguet, A. (2008) Introducing development education in technical universities: successful experiences in Spain, European Journal of Engineering Education, 33, 343-354

Gasper, D, 1990: Subnational Planning and Planning Education ‑ implications of their changing environment and practice. Pp.261‑303 in Subnational Planning in Southern and Eastern Africa, eds. A.H.J. Helmsing & K. Wekwete, Aldershot: Avebury Publishers.

Gasper, D., 1993: Policy Analysis and Evaluation ‑ an agenda for education and research.  Working Paper 140, ISS, The Hague.

GUNI. 2008. Report on Higher Education in the World 3. London: Palgrave.

Hart, Angie, Simon Northmore and C. Gerhardt (2009) 'Briefing Paper: Auditing, Benchmarking and Evaluating Public Engagement'. Bristol: National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement.

Penz, P., J. Drydyk, P. Bose (2008): The Development Ethics Framework. Accessed on 14 July 2009 :

Penz, P., J. Drydyk, P. Bose (2010) Displaced by Development: Ethics and Responsibilities. Cambridge University Press. fothcoming

Sanyal, B.C. and M. Martin (2007) 'Quality assurance and the role of accreditation: an overview', in Higher education in the world 2007 : accreditation for quality assurance : what is at stake? (pp. 3-23). Basingstoke [England]; New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Vroeijenstijn, A.I. (1995) Improvement and Accountability: Navigating between Scylla and Charybdis. Guide for External Quality Assessment in Higher Education.: Taylor and Francis: Bristol, PA.

Input refers, for example, to student intake, student selection, budget, academic staff. Process, for instance, could include aims and goals, educational processes, educational organization, content and counseling. Outputs, for example, could incorporate pass/fail rate, number of graduates (Vroeijenstijn, 1995)

To draw up our list of dimensions, we have used ideas from Hart et al.’s (2009) proposal for benchmarking public engagement, various papers and documents in Guni’s series on the social engagement of universities (Guni, 2008), and our previous work (Boni and Perez-Foguet, 2008; Gasper 1990, 1993). We have also benefitted from discussions and exchanges with colleagues at the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague, the Technical University of Valencia and the University of Brighton.


  • UNESCO. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
  • The Catalan Association of Public Universities (ACUP)

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  • Generalitat de Catalunya
  • Ajuntament de Barcelona