Service quality and the higher education industry

by Dr. Lew Tek Yew

As Curtin University, Sarawak Malaysia (Curtin Sarawak) aspires to be an internationally renowned campus of Curtin University and contribute to Curtin’s vision of being among the top 20 universities in Asia by 2020, the level of service quality it provides to students is critical in achieving its goals.

Studies have suggested that positive perception of service quality is correlated to favourable outcomes such as willingness to recommend the university to others. Furthermore, service quality is an increasingly important tool for differentiating the services of universities in an increasingly competitive higher education industry.

One of Curtin Sarawak’s main goals is to achieve excellence in teaching and learning, which prepares graduates for lifelong learning and equips them to make a positive contribution to society. Therefore, the level of service quality it provides its students is significant in achieving this goal.

Moreover, intense competition in higher education mandates the need for assessments of customer-perceived service quality for marketing and differentiation purposes.

Another important reason for the need to assess students’ perception of service quality is that recent studies have found significant relationships between positive perceptions of service quality and students’ willingness to recommend their university to others.

For example, positive word of mouth is one of the most important factors in attracting potential students to higher education and it is also considered to be an important outcome in any service context. In sum, managing service quality is essential to inducing potential students to enrol in a university.

Several typical characteristics of services such as higher education include intangibility, perishability, inseparability of production and consumption, and heterogeneity, which could lead to students experiencing difficulty in evaluating a service before they actually experience it. Besides, ultimate perceived service quality also depends on the contributions of students themselves in terms of preparing for lectures and tutorials, completing assignments on time, and so on.

Service quality can be broken down into two components: technical quality and functional quality. Technical quality relates to what is provided during the service process (knowledge, including the content and delivery of course units/modules offered to students, tangibles, technical solutions, etc.) while functional quality refers to how the service is provided, such as service processes, interpersonal behaviour contributed by service employees during service encounters, and physical evidence.

Functional quality encompasses all the quality-related features which engage the students throughout the service production process and, in the higher education context, the academic qualification and students’ level of knowledge and skills seem to represent the core product. Functional quality also involves the interactions which take place between the students and the personnel charged with the responsibility of delivering the core product, which include academic staff and general staff.

Literature on the subject of service quality also highlights differences between service quality and customer satisfaction. Bitner (1990) attempted to resolve this issue by suggesting that customer satisfaction assessments relate to specific service transactions while service quality is a general attitude relating to the service provider’s overall excellence and could be the product of the evaluations of a number of service encounters.

Following on this argument, technical service quality is best assessed by students who have either graduated or are in their final years of study, while students who are still pursuing their study with the university should be able to assess functional quality better.

Managing service quality concerns managing the gaps between the expectations and perceptions on the part of management, and employers and customers. The most important gaps are those between customers’ expectations of service and their perception of the actual service delivered.

In the context of higher education, Hill (1995) described several factors influencing students’ expectations, such as word-of-mouth communication, personal needs, past experience of educational service from their previous schools and other competitors, as well as external communications from the service provider and the need to provide sufficient information to students to ensure that their expectations are realistic.

Oldman and Baron (2000) also discussed several factors influencing perceived service quality of students, such as the interaction between students and the interaction between students and lecturers, which lie at the heart of service delivery.

Parasuraman, Zeithaml and Berry (1985, 1988), meanwhile, developed an instrument called SERVQUAL that assesses service quality across a large number of service industries, including higher education. It has undergone numerous improvements and revisions since it was first introduced and the scale currently contains 21 perception items that are distributed throughout five service quality dimensions: tangiblesresponsivenessreliabilityassurance, and empathy (Zeithaml & Bitner, 2003).

A higher education institution like Curtin Sarawak, like any other business institution, needs to satisfy its clients in order to stay in business. Past research has shown that word-of-mouth recommendations are a major influence on students’ choice of institutions. In order words, a prospective student comes to know about a higher education institution and forms expectations about the quality of service he or she will receive from the institution from the feedback of others who have attended or are attending the institution.

If customers have high expectations but they are not met, the negative reaction will be overriding. Therefore, students’ expectations and experience should be an important dimension in the measurement of quality of education. A university as a service provider needs to uncover students’ expectations and deliver better services than those promised.

Higher education institutions are not normal business. Therefore, models developed for ‘traditional’ businesses are often difficult to apply to the higher education context. This is not to say, of course, that concepts such as service quality and customer focus have no relevance to universities, but the way they relate to strategies is different.

Two problems that normally emerge in the higher education sector are, firstly, consumers might not know what they want from institutions in the sector, and secondly, the output from such institutions is difficult to pin down. In addition, universities also need to respond quickly changes in the market, as well as political forces. Obsolete business designs tend to cause decline in students enrolments.

The concept of students as customers has also brought about some controversies among educationists. Some argue that lecturers sometimes cannot be nice in order to satisfy customers’ needs. Lecturers often have to give marks that are not what students think they deserve. Universities can even fail students, such that students, despite having paid money for their education, will not receive the desired credentials. There are obviously certain expectations that cannot be fully met as universities have to maintain the quality of education provided.

From literature on the subject, there have been research done on students’ expectations and experience towards the learning institution from different dimensions: cross-cultural, over time and different types of students. The research done by Ford et al. (1999) indicated a positive result in educational experience with a New Zealand sample. However, the result suggested that US universities should work on cost/time factors and downplay physical aspects to enhance the perceptions of students as to their educational experience.

Research done by Oldfield and Baron (2000) has shown that student evaluation of certain aspects of service quality may change resulting from student experience and/or course content, and that the criterion ‘acceptable’ is increasingly important the longer the students have been on the course.

Hill (1995) also argued that the stability of students’ expectations over time suggests that they are probably formed prior to arrival at university. Research done by Ford et al. (1999) has shown that mature students with work experience are more career-focused and more concerned about the quality of teaching and the university’s facilities than the traditional student straight from high school.

Another study done by Slade et al. (2000) shows that people who stay on at university to complete their studies have higher expectations of an excellent university than those who leave before completion of their studies. In addition, those who remain to continue their studies rate their service perceptions of a minimum standard university slightly lower than those who did not complete.

Research done by East (2001) indicate that most international students want to be responsible for their own learning, but they also wanted assurance, responsiveness and empathy from their teachers; they want to interact with local students, and they want to be involved in the Australian university learning experience.

The issues highlighted in this article should encourage the managements of private universities in Malaysia to position their institutions well and create competitive advantage in an ever competitive higher education industry. This is essential as Malaysia aims to be a international hub for world class education and targets about 100,000 foreign students every year. This trend of globalisation, liberalisation and reforms to the educational system will inevitably bring many challenges in developing ways to manage the expectations and perceptions of international and local students in the future.

Dr Lew Tek Yew is a senior lecturer in management at the School of Business at Curtin Sarawak. He has published more than 30 journal articles and conference papers. His research interests include human resource management practices, perceived organisational support, employee commitment and turnover. He can be contacted at +60 85 443939 ext. 3123 or by e-mail to