Should universities implement ISO 9001?

Although ISO 9001 is applicable for all organizations, the ISO (International Organization for Standardization) strategic plan 2011-2015 failed to identify education as a sector where ISO standards provide benefits. Aware of this problem, ISO published IWA (Internal Workshop Agreement) 2 Quality management systems — Guidelines for the application of ISO 9001 in education. This guideline helps educational institutions (including higher education) to successfully implement ISO 9001 and achieve adequate benefits.

Why implement?

The education and training world is losing much of its special status, and is being considered more and more like an “ordinary” economic sector. This also implies that schools, universities, and training providers are increasingly expected to perform at high level, behave professionally, and provide quality services throughout. Two important trends may be observed in this regard:

  • External demands (from governments, students, employers, etc) on the education system are increasing; this puts pressure on the deployment of resources and the efficiency of the organization.
  • The continuing education and training sector is becoming a more mature and “established” economic sector, alongside many other service sectors.

Such trends suggest that the education and training paradigms are changing from supply-driven teaching to demand-led learning. Although many educators do not feel comfortable with such developments, they would seem to be inevitable. Indeed, similar customer-driven trends can also be witnessed in other areas, such as public services.

Having this in mind, implementation of ISO 9001 seems like a logical step in gaining a competitive advantage.

What can go wrong?

Unfortunately, ISO 9001 implementation in educational institutions often has poor outcomes. Defining the students as clients may be challenging in terms of educational outcomes. This can shift the focus of the university from being quality oriented in terms of educational outcomes, to being customer friendly, and therefore reducing standards to satisfy the “client.” Universities have two primary missions: to be a place that delivers knowledge and teaches the student how to tackle real-life professional problems, and to deliver graduates who are suitable for the modern industry. With these missions in mind, the student is the raw material that is turned into a product, and the real customer is the society into which the product is delivered. Shifting the customer focus to the students can lead to a majority of students seeking to obtain a degree in the easiest possible way, thereby seeking to obtain the minimum level required rather than the optimum level.

What are the benefits?

Besides the usual benefits that ISO 9001 brings to organizations (See also Six Key Benefits of ISO 9001 Implementation), it offers some benefits especially for education institutions due to their specificities. The quality in educational institutions has often been interpreted fairly narrowly, focusing on particular features of the education and training services delivered.

Properly implemented, ISO 9001 will bring the following to the education institution:

  • a shift in emphasis in schools, from a focus on the quality of the teacher toward the performance of the institution as a whole;
  • the introduction of new or additional quality control mechanisms in higher education;
  • the creation, for the first time, of quality assurance systems and performance-related mechanisms in continuing education and training.

These advantages in the process are possible only if top management is able to engage people for the cause. Every person who affects quality should have the required competence, and be given training in the principles and dimensions of quality. They must understand why it is necessary to measure trends in processes, and to declare non-conforming services and not hide them.

So, challenges are numerous. But so, too, are the benefits. Competition among educational organizations is increasing. And, there you go – a new challenge. But, if the organization approaches the implementation thoroughly and with the required attention, it will manage to gain a step ahead of its competition; otherwise, it will be just another certificate in the rector’s office.

You can use this free  Gap Analysis Tool to compare your organization to the standard.

Advisera Strahinja Stojanovic
Strahinja Stojanovic

Strahinja Stojanovic is certified as a lead auditor for the ISO 13485, ISO 9001, ISO 14001, and OHSAS 18001 standards by RABQSA. He participated in the implementation of these standards in more than 100 SMEs, through the creation of documentation and performing in-house training for maintaining management systems, internal audits, and management reviews.