Postgraduate Dissertation

The University of Glamorgan – Glamorgan Business School – MSc Marketing,


Feb 2008 Cohort





Abdulla Salameh on



‘Exploring critical factors which affect

the academic aspect of service quality in higher education as perceived by non-UK customers studying postgraduate programmes in the UK’







This dissertation is submitted to GlamorganBusinessSchool in partial fulfilment of the requirements laid down by the University of Glamorgan for the award of a Master of Science Degree in Marketing.

This work has been checked for accuracy of referencing and I declare this work to be of my own creation.

Date: 28th May 2009


I would like to seize this chance to express my eternal gratefulness for everyone who made it possible for me to successfully complete this thesis. Thank you to the supervisor and intellectual mentor of my dissertation, Henry Enos, whose continuous guidance, advice, willingness to meet and, indeed, beyond-description deeds (in spite of my never-ending inquiries and his Herculean workload) were crucial for me to stay on course and to be prepared for all dimensions of this process of writing up the thesis. Thanks also to all tutors, whose outlook on their subjects has inspired me to look at the topic of my dissertation in a variety of ways and realise that there is hope for the little guy, maybe. Thank you, the unknown soldiers, such as LRC staff, who, despite long and weary working hours, would still exhibit extraordinary ability to maintain an inspirational, honest smile (literally as well as metaphorically) all the time, from the time we enter together to the library till it is closed. Thank you, all relatives, friends and acquaintances, for your encouragement. Last but not least, I would like to thank my lovely parents, Haifa Hamad and Mahmoud Salameh, who has endured my years away as a student without a complaint and has aided me in ways immeasurable. To them, I promise my love, appreciation and all future earnings; for without them, I could have remained illiterate…



Introduction, Background, Rationale, Aims and Objectives…………………………………..6

Literature Review………………………………………….…………………………………10

The marketing of UK higher education to non-UK students…………………………..11

Services marketing……………………………………………………………………..15

Customer satisfaction and service quality in postgraduate education…………………25

Measuring service quality in higher education…………………………………………32

Limitations of literature review………………………………………………………..37


Theoretical underpinnings……………………………………………………………..40





Quantitative methodology and methods……………………………………………….50

Qualitative methodology and methods…………………………………………………52

Desk Research………………………………………………………………………….56


Focus Group……………………………………………………………………………59

Individual depth interviewing………………………………………………………….61

Sampling, thematic analysis, validity, reliability and ethics……………………………62

Limitations of methodology……………………………………………………………66

Findings and Discussion…………………………………………………………………68






Limitations of Findings and Discussion……………………………………………….86

Conclusion, Recommendations and Future Research……………………………………87

Selected Bibliography……………………………………………………………………90



Purpose – The aim of this paper is to explore critical factors which affect the academic aspect of service quality in higher education as perceived by non-UK customers studying postgraduate programmes in the UK.

Design/methodology/approach – A mainly primary, exploratory, deductive, qualitative research is undertaken into the aim set.

Findings – Factors that affect the non-UK postgraduates’ perceptions of the academic aspect of service quality are those which would ultimately enhance employability, such as bringing guest speakers and reputation.

Research limitations/implications – Limitations are discussed at the end of each section. Implications include the need for further research regarding how to further adapt the academic aspect of service quality in higher education, and, more important, the factors affecting the non-UK postgraduates’ perceptions of it, so as to further foster students’ employability.

Practical implications – If this study’s findings are taken into consideration when marketing a UK university’s service offerings to non-UK postgraduates, more of the latter can be attracted, resources misallocation can be greatly reduced and continuous service improvement ensured.

Originality/value – This dissertation offers a valuable understanding of the academic service quality needs of non-UK postgraduates and also a possible conceptual framework for marketers to utilise when assessing certain aspects of their service delivery.

Keywords – Service quality, UK higher education, services marketing, non-UK postgraduates
Paper Type – A dissertation


Introduction, Background, Rationale, Aims and Objectives



















‘He who has a thing to sell and goes and whispers in a well is not so apt to get the dollars as he who climbs a tree and hollers’  


Overseas student mobility is not completely new and could be traceable back to the 4th century B.C. when individuals travelled from one land to another in quest for learning and knowledge from acclaimed masters situated in hubs of wisdom (Cardinale, 2000; Gürüz, 2008). Over the years, nevertheless, although the principle has not much changed, the range of the practice has grown quickly (Chadee and Naidoo, 2008). Nowadays, “trade in higher education services is a [multi] billion dollar industry, including the recruitment of international students, … the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) … includes ‘education’ as a service sector …. and … demand for higher education is increasing in most countries” (Knight, 2002, p. 2). Demand for educational services is greatest in English-speaking countries with the USA, the UK and Australia, respectively, as the largest commercial providers of higher education services globally (Harman, 2006). Forecasts of the global demand for international higher education have estimated that in 2004 there are approximately 1.8 million overseas students studying across national borders and demand is expected to burgeon fourfold over the next couple of decades; consequently, exporters of international higher education services earn paramount revenue – $11 billion in the USA and $4 billion in Australia (Bohm, Daris, Meares and Pearce, 2002). In the UK, the scene of this study, in 2003-2004 alone, the total income generated by UK higher education institutions is about £16.87 billion (12% of which comes from non-UK students); with respect to sectoral gross output, this is more than the UK pharmaceutical sector and only slightly less than UK auxiliary financial services and legal activities (Universities UK, 2006). Currently, international education endows the UK with a sustainable, dynamic and high-skill trade (not counting other benefits, such as attracting intellectual capital), anticipated to be worth more than GBP 10 billion and highly crucial for funding UK universities, especially as public sources are diminishing (British Council, 2009).

Given the value of this sector, it is not uncommon that there has been a plethora of important studies regarding growth and performance; however, there is a dearth of research that explores international higher education services from a marketing viewpoint (Chen and Zimitat, 2006). Of a particularly challenging (and less researched) nature is the problem facing today’s providers of global educational services: identifying and implementing suitable measurement tools that will ascertain the sustainability of service quality (O’Neill and Palmer, 2004). Since academic-related attributes are the most important ones in the provision of quality education from postgraduate students’ perspective (on which studies are somewhat sketchy and underdeveloped) in the UK (Hill, Lomas and MacGregor, 2003), and since, moreover, the USA and Australia have been attracting more overseas students than the UK primarily because, unlike the latter, they have sustained strategic, aggressive and pro-active marketing policies in the global markets for education (Smith, 2001), the aim and objectives of this study will be as follows:


Exploring critical factors which affect the academic aspect of service quality in higher education as perceived by non-UK customers studying postgraduate programmes in the UK.


  1. To conduct a literature review related to the following main areas: the marketing of UK higher education to non-UK students, services marketing, customer satisfaction and service quality in postgraduate education and measuring service quality in higher education.
  2. To undertake a mainly primary, exploratory, deductive, qualitative research into the aim set.
  3. In light of the aim, to critically evaluate the primary and secondary data (the findings).

This dissertation is divided into 3 main sections: literature review, methodology and findings and discussion. Each section has subdivisions and is concluded by its limitations. The thesis then closes with conclusions, recommendations and suggestions for future research.

Literature Review





















‘It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it’Aristotle, 384 BC-322 BC, Greek philosopher












The marketing of UK higher education to non-UK students

In their systematic review of the literature on higher education marketing, Hemsley-Brown and Oplatka (2006) have found that in the 1990s, before which higher education marketing has been highly resisted, (if welcome) frequently based on product marketing and a university’s offerings have been regarded mainly as products, higher education marketing has started to be defined within the services marketing definition, demonstrating some well-established authors’ anxiety to ensure that higher education is recognised as a business: a service sector business. According to Hennig-Thurau, Langer and Hansen (2001), educational services are classified under the services marketing field. Nowadays within services marketing theory, higher education is much quoted as a key illustration of a marketable service with little (if any) tangible outcome (Fisk, Gountas, Hume, Gountas, Grove and John, 2007; Stodnick and Rogers, 2008). Yet the body of literature on education marketing, which begins to emerge in the 1980s in the UK and US, is essentially theoretical-normative and grounded on definitions, concepts and models proposed for utilisation by the business sector (Oplatka and Hemsley-Brown, 2004), with many manuals and books on how to market institutions (e.g. Gibbs and Knapp, 2001). In fact, education has been so marketed that higher education is now promoted on the basis of a means to an end and not an end in itself (Bok, 2003; Kirp, 2004). Such over-marketisation has not been without consequences: empirical research has proved that, for example, most students (especially in a time of recession) regard a degree as a route into a better career (Rolfe, 2002) or social mobility and employment prospects (Bogler and Somech, 2002). This has elicited some harsh critique, typically revolving around the idea that higher education may become a business, like any other one in the business realm, which is morally at odds with the values of education and therefore educators must oppose any form of marketing in their institutions (Hemsley-Brown and Goonawardana, 2007). However, Maringe (2005) argues that in a context where higher education is expanding globally, where new institutions are established to satisfy burgeoning demand and where the diversity of university products and programmes are becoming more heterogeneous, students are presented with more options and universities are left competing with one another and vying for customers from major competitors. He concludes that higher education is thus left with no choice but to adopt the marketing idea, after a significant resistance towards marketisation in the academy of many universities, though higher education marketing is still in its infancy, in crisis and appears to be in jeopardy. Consequently, higher education marketisation has come to be seen in most countries as a compromise between state control, privatisation and academic autonomy (Young, 2002).

In recent years, funding higher education has already undergone considerable modification in various OECD countries, where public funding face tighter measures, and education remains for the most part a public sector (OECD, 2008). Public budgets allocated to funding higher education institutions are becoming more complex, scarcer, and to an ever-widening degree performance-related. (Arnaboldi and Azzone, 2005). In UK, the higher education system has experienced a dramatic change and expansion over the last two decades (Johnson, 2002). Of particular interest is the fact that higher education has not been unaffected by the attempt of successive UK governments to marketise the public sector (Douglas, McClelland and Davies, 2008). Whether beneficial or not, the process of corporatising universities seems to have now started in the UK, at the very least from the perspective of some UK scholars and the government: the marketisation and deregulation of UK universities is evidenced in the literature (Gibbs, 2001; Taylor, 2003) and in practice. A Charter of Education clearly calls on academics to meet and fulfill student needs and requests, and plainly asks higher education establishments to regard students as customers (Waugh, 2002). According to Russell (2005), the emergence of education for international students as a key component of the service sector for sourcing revenue, the financial constraints placed upon higher education, and securing market share from rival providers (the US and Australia) have, inter alia, led the UK Government in June 1999 to launch an initiative aimed at repositioning and promoting its “Education UK” brand. Indeed, it has been claimed that (not globalisation but) financial issues (particularly UK regulatory methods embedded in funding higher education) characterise the internationalisation process in UK higher education more strongly than in any other European countries (Teichler, 2008). After all, sufficient funding for higher education institutions in a country where the public expenditure on higher education as a percentage of GDP is one of the lowest amongst OECD countries (OECD, 2006) and where governmental support is dwindling (Brookes, 2003) can hardly be procured without overseas fee-paying students (Trim, 2003).

A consultation document (Education UK: Positioning for success, 2003) has been later produced by the British Council (largely charged with implementing the initiative) to evaluate, in light of the Prime Minister’s initiative after 4 years of its initiation, how the global education market is evolving and the implications for the UK. The document praises some notable achievements by the initiative, yet explicates how in the fierce battle to win the minds and hearts of international students from major competitors, there is a dire need for repositioning the UK brand strategically, to, among other things, prevent losing market share (to Australia in particular) in, for example, South-East Asia and key traditional markets such as Singapore and Malaysia and to expand the narrow-minded UK search for profits only, as opposed to, say, The USA, which “recognises the financial benefits from international students but is equally, if not more, concerned with the potential to extend their influence and improve security” (p. 6). Elsewhere in a report (Realising our potential, 2000), the British Council has detailed some fundamental weaknesses (almost all of them are related to the absence of long-term well-focused strategy) hindering the UK’s ability to compete effectively and to maintain itself as a genuine world-class pioneer in the international education market. Likewise, Binsardi and Ekwulugo (2003) undertake research, meant to function as marketing intelligence inputs (to inform the British Council, the UK Government, academic marketing planners, etc.), which examines how the UK education is perceived of by international students and assesses UK performance in the global student market. They relate how in the past British education has been known for a long time to be the best in the world, receiving benefits form the branding of “made in the United Kingdom”, with UK universities enjoying high educational standard, reputation, world-recognised qualifications, image and acceleration of market penetration abroad. However, they warn that against those changes in today’s global operating environment (where the first and the third largest exporter of international education – the US and Australia respectively – have secured a large share of their international students while the UK, the second leading exporter of international education, records only a marginal growth with declining market penetration worldwide), UK universities need to grow internationally in order to maintain their existence. Corollary to this belief, they think, is the dire need for a well-integrated marketing effort if the UK is to hold a competitive edge in the provision of international education.

Thus, universities, whose mature sector, of all the international education sectors, is the fastest growing and largest (Unesco, 2006), are taking more cognisance of higher education as a service industry, and consequently are paying more attention to satisfying the needs and expectations of their mainly involved customers, namely, the students (DeShields, Kara and Kaynak, 2005). In other words, higher education institutions need to have clearly-defined target markets (in this case students, but it could be internal and external stakeholders of different kinds), gain an insight into the target market needs, adjust their offerings to satisfy these needs, and thence foster customer satisfaction by delivering superior quality of services (Keegan and Davidson, 2004) – in short, a services marketing strategy (Vrontis, Thrassou and Melanthiou, 2007).

Services Marketing

The size, diversity, importance and quick growth of the service sector present its marketers with strategic challenges (Javalgi and White, 2002). The service sector has by now become the quantitatively most important sector in all OECD economies, accounting for about 70% of aggregate production and employment and continuing to grow (Wölfl, 2005). Nor have service economy, its long-term influence and its role in replacing the obsolete manufacturing base developed in the twentieth century been new (Javalgi, Whipple, Ghosh and Young, 2005). For instance, in the largest national economy alone, Zeithaml and Bitner (2003) report how (excluding services provided by manufacturing companies) as early as 1929, 55 percent of the working population was employed in the service sector, approximately 54 percent of the gross national product was generated by services in 1948, as of 1999 services represented 78 percent of the gross domestic product and 80 percent of employment in the United States, and the trend towards services has continued (and will continue to do so). This (somewhat lately recognised) increasing importance and growth of the service sector worldwide (in all developing and developed economies (Wirtz, 2000)) has led to a corollary interest and increase in the marketing of services; an interest that resulted in a number of problems which have beset the service sector (Czinkota and Ronkainen, 2002). According to Zeithaml, Bitner and Gremler (2006), even the best marketers who moved from marketing in packaged goods and manufacturing industries to services industries couldn’t solve these problems (by directly transferring their experiences and skills and without new approaches and concepts), which are attributed mostly to the most basic distinguishing and critical factor in determining whether or not an offering is a service: intangibility. This is most relevant in the higher education sector, with its cornerstone, i.e., teaching, as Zeithaml et al. moreover point out, being quoted as the most intangibly dominant offering on the tangibility spectrum.

Nonetheless, in higher education, these are not the only challenges facing marketers and operators of services. For example, the supervision of a student’s thesis, which is “arguably the most important piece of work a student produces on a degree course” (Lane, Devonport, Milton and Williams, 2003, p. 60), falls in many respects within the most complex services category for the provider and consumer to deliver and evaluate: the credence goods category of services products (Dann, 2008). Credence goods are those complicated service offerings (such as investment or legal advice) that the customer often has no criteria against which they can measure the quality of the service pre, while or post the experience (Moorthi, 2002).

Another related example is illustrated in identifying the primary decision makers and, more important, the factors crucially impacting on their decisions to opt for a specific institution, to plan accordingly. The former can be the parents, the students, the sponsoring bodies, etc. (Pugsley and Coffey, 2002) and the latter, for international students, can be the reputation and quality of the university, the recognition of the university’s qualifications in their own states, the expertise of the university’s personnel, etc. (Mazzarol and Soutar, 2002). Nevertheless, identifying those factors, their importance, and the ways they affect decisions, let alone translating them into a marketing plan, is extremely complicated. For example, reputation, whose management is regarded as extremely significant for attracting and retaining students (Standifird, 2005), can be identified as the overall perception of a firm, what it represents, what it is linked to, and/or what can be expected to be obtained when consuming the services of that firm (MacMillan, Money, Downing and Hillenbrand, 2005). Further, the reputation of a firm is created when that firm is in interaction with its constituencies in all incidents (Schuler, 2004). Consequently, perceptions of reputation can be created (and modified) at various times by different stakeholders about myriad dimensions such as services, brands, institutions (Lemmink, Schuijf and Streukens, 2003) and even countries (Passow, Fehlmann and Grahlow, 2005). Thus, students (or the decision maker in general) may have (different) perception(s) of, say, the university, the department and the desired course (Helgesen and Nesset, 2007) from different sources, such as Times Higher Education and Financial Times Ranking (Spitzeck and Siegenthaler, 2007).

A third example is represented in the inseparability characteristic of services (which entails the simultaneous production and marketing of services – in itself a challenge): service quality often cannot be standardised due to the inability to fully mechanise the service encounter, though the innovative use of technologies (e.g., online learning) and tangibles (e.g., library cards) in some industries have made it possible to overcome or diminish difficulties (Peter and Donnelly, 2002). A fourth illustration of these challenges is the perishability of services (e.g., an empty seat in a university course results in a capacity lost forever, as it cannot be resold at a later time) and fluctuating demand on them (demand on courses commencing in September is usually the highest, as opposed to other entry points throughout the year, if any); however, both can be sometimes addressed by tools such as off-peak pricing and technology (Lovelock and Wirtz, 2004).

Nonetheless, perhaps one of the most serious challenges facing those operating and marketing services is that of managing students’ expectations, let alone formulating suitable responses correspondingly, according to the distinguished Director of the Centre for the Study of Higher Education and Professor in Higher Education Richard James (2001). He notes how student expectations and priorities, and the links of these to the university’s preferences and expectations, are extremely complicated questions for analysis; the complexity is mainly the result of the highly reciprocal character of the higher education process and the two-way interaction between the actions of universities and those of students — the higher education enterprise not only forms student expectations, the education process is itself affected by the nature of student expectations. Moreover, expectations undergo an on-going update in a real-time way (Liu, Sudharshan and Hamer, 2000). Licata, Chakraborty and Krishnan (2008) suggest some ramifications of this continuous change of expectations over time and subsequent implications for marketers, such as (a) each customer has a range of expectations (at least two levels), which he/she uses to contextualise his/her perceptions of the company’s performance, and which therefore must be identified to be later taken into consideration by the manager while monitoring performance and ascertaining the customer’s expectation levels; and (b) the significance of observing the relative impact of antecedents (e.g., what is the customer’s perception of his/her part in the service interaction? How many effects do important others’ expectations exert on the target customer?) on various expectation levels, whereby marketing communications and plans can perhaps be restructured to affect and take advantage of those antecedents of expectations. However, observing antecedents is in itself a challenge, since the same group of them can be perceived differently or impact in more than one way; for example, antecedents of a firm’s reputation may be perceived as antecedents of satisfaction as well (e.g. Johnson, Gustafsson, Andreassen, Lervik and Cha, 2001). Managing expectations effectively also include truth in advertising (or what is promised is delivered) and managing students’ expectations right from the beginning about what support, contact and level of service they will have the right to (Scott, 2004). Many companies, say Ho and Zheng (2003), even attempt to set the consumer’s expectations in service delivery, though when committing itself to a certain level of expectation (which brings about pros and cons), a company must take both operations (viz, capacity and level of personnel) and marketing (viz, consumers and their reactions) issues into serious consideration. Yet expectations not only have different levels, but also different types. According to Ojasalo (2000), the consumer’s mind can include one, some, or all of the following expectations at the same time, and their extent can differ (e.g., expectations may be more or less implicit): expectations can be fuzzy (when customers anticipate a change but do not have an exact idea of what this change might be – better teaching methods), precise (the opposite of fuzzy – student-centred modes of teaching), implicit (taken for granted to be materialised that consumers do not even think about them, or about the chance that they may not come true – providing answer books during exams), explicit (active wishes or assumptions about the service in the consumer’s thinking – prompt email responses), unrealistic (highly unlikely for the service firm, or the consumers to fulfill – asking the supervisor to write parts of the thesis), and/or realistic (the opposite of unrealistic). Debate on the significance and role of different levels and types of expectations in managing service quality has been well documented in the literature for many years, is an ongoing practice and is not well understood (Diaz-Martin, Iglesias, Vazquez and Ruiz, 2000; Kalamas, Laroche and Cezard, 2002). Some scholars stress the significance of managing and comprehending expectations to help form and sustain long-term consumer relationships and identify problems, for satisfaction and perceived service quality stem from how well the service experience, or the real service performance, meets the consumer’s expectations (Ojasolo, 2001; Walker and Baker, 2000; Zabava Ford, 2001). Nonetheless, others are drawing the conclusion that the measurement of service quality should not concern itself with expectations; rather, it should search for the customer’s direct evaluation of a firm’s overall excellence (Cronin, Brady and Hult, 2000; Dabholkar, Shepherd and Thorpe, 2000).

In academia, however, services have emerged from a ‘Cinderella’ status – from being neglected and marginal, to gaining wide currency as meriting serious scholarship (Miles, 2000). Ascribing this status partly to the traditional difficulty in defining services as it is predominantly intangible (leading to the hardship the customer faces in understanding the way services are created and delivered) and there are myriad industries found in the service sector, Lovelock (2001) suggests two traits that capture the services essence. The first one is that a service is a performance or an act provided by one party to another; the second is that services are economic activities that generate value and offer benefits for customers at specific places and times as a result of causing a desired change to happen in the recipient of the service. Nevertheless, he argues that this difficulty in defining services is by no means exclusive to scholars and customers, citing the example of how many airlines worldwide have studied the marketing strategy of southwest airlines, the most consistently profitable airline in America, but none has yet been successful in accomplishing its subtly tuned balance. Once again, this sheds more light on intangibility as (the main characteristic of services and) forming the major obstacle when dealing with services in the paths of both the marketing academicians and professionals, for whom services intangibility has made it difficult to identify, measure and control performance standards (Thakkar, Deshmukh and Shastree, 2006).

Yet despite this recognition of the huge importance of services, scholars, practitioners and consumers all alike are complaining about its current status quo. Regarding academicians and professionals, suffice it would appear to refer to Grove, Fisk and John’s (2003) study. They want to examine the future of services marketing and to shed some light upon the field of services by posing the question “What directions would you like to see the services field take in the future?” to a panel of ten leading services experts: Leonard Berry, Mary Jo Bitner, David Bowen, Stephen W. Brown, Christian Gro¨nroos, Evert Gummesson, Christopher Lovelock, Parsu Parasuraman, Benjamin Schneider, and Valarie Zeithaml. Here are some of the concerns expressed by the panelists, followed by how they might be applicable to higher education marketing:

  • The term “services marketing” may be too restrictive and has been given to an area of interest that integrates marketing, operations and human resource management into an often seamless entity. Hence in higher education the marketing activity (which, as Gummesson (2002) suggests, must penetrate every corner of a firm, not least the thoughts and deeds of management) should be practiced by all university staff rather than being assigned solely to a separate functional department.
  • Service versus goods distinction may be outdated as a tool of paying attention to the nature of services, i.e. services are increasingly a key component of the physical products and physical products are increasingly indigenous to service experience. Thus, this distinction should be eliminated altogether. Even in as a pure service as higher education, there are, for example, books and the degree certificate that functions as a tangible proof of the education service encounter (Fisk, Gountas, Hume, Gountas, Grove and John, 2007).
  • The four key characteristics (declared by one of the experts as the IHIP misrepresentation and by another as a service mythology) that have been frequently mentioned to differentiate services from physical goods (i.e., intangibility, heterogeneity, inseparability, perishability) have been referred to as too simplistic to capture the current and future nature of the service offering accurately and therefore should be dropped. Perhaps, as indicated earlier, adopting the tangibility spectrum in classifying services would be more functional and realistic.

As Grove et al. furthermore observe, the two notions of services versus goods distinction and the four characteristics to distinguish services from goods marketing have been central to the services field from its early beginnings. It is worthy of noting here that the plausibility of these notions is now being critically questioned by a panel comprising some of the authors who are credited with them (one of the reasons why their names are fully cited here). Nonetheless, “it is clear”, continue Grove et al. (p. 114), “that the service experts would like to see greater substantiation of the role that services and service quality play in attaining desired business outcomes, such as profitability, customer satisfaction and loyalty” [Italics added]. One way of doing so is identifying critical incidents that are now recognised as one of the most useful methods to spot the satisfaction factors in the field of service quality literature, since it is conceived of as especially appropriate to single out drivers of satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) in service encounters, particularly moments of truth (Backhaus and Bauer, 2000). A critical incident is said to be such if it importantly contributes, positively or otherwise, to a phenomenon or activity (Gremler, 2004). In services, critical incidents, which can be transformed into an event of customer dis/satisfaction depending largely on the front-line staff’s behaviour, can be divided broadly into three sections: (1) unsolicited and unprompted personnel’s behaviour; (2) the staff’s responsiveness to service failures; and (3) the employees interaction with consumers requests and needs (Bowie and Buttle, 2004). Nevertheless, not all recalled incidents of satisfaction or dissatisfaction have a character of criticality (or are critically critical); namely, are sources of an alteration in customer’s loyalty behaviour (Edvardsson and Nilsson-Wittell, 2004). In addition, some research (such as this dissertation) might be interested in issues that are not necessarily incident-specific (Otnes, Ruth, Lowrey and Commuri, 2006). As for consumers, their overall perception of the quality of service is declining (Brady, 2000; Fishman, 2001). Wondering why there is hard evidence that consumers are less satisfied and overall perceive a lower quality of service in a time where at some levels and in many industries services are better than ever (e.g., communications industries – people can now communicate quicker, cheaper and more effective than they have been able to just 10 years ago), Zeithaml, Bitner and Gremler (2009) remark (in a book subtitled, as they stress throughout it, “integrating customer focus across the firm”) that it is difficult to point precisely to the causes of declining customer satisfaction. However, they add that for academics and managers of services marketing and management, the message is clear: there is a load of hard work to be accomplished. If services are activities which occur in an interactive process geared at creating customer satisfaction; if also services marketing is deeply rooted in the principle that the customer will have a satisfying memory, experience, emotion or other primarily intangible output as the main benefit of the service encounter (Kasper, Helsdingen and Gabbot, 2006); and if services in various sectors and in many ways are better than ever but customers are less satisfied, then surely there is still plenty of work to be done by marketing scholars and practitioners? “We [still] do not know what services are” (Gummesson, 2000a, p. 121). This is specially so in higher education marketing, where several questions are still being raised even about whether or not students should be viewed and subsequently treated as customers (Sax, 2004) and about coming up with appropriate means to accurately measure the quality of services, given the difficulties of measurement usually encountered in the service sector (Jorgenson and Stiroh, 2000; Temple, 2002).

Customer (or student?) satisfaction and service quality in postgraduate education

Scholars have been at variance in the decision to view and subsequently treat students as customers or not; a variance that is by no means only theoretical, but rather with serious practical implications. At the one end of the spectrum, some assert that a “customer” metaphor is inappropriate and as a result measuring service quality (especially by using business models) to improve the service is totally unfeasible (Svensson and Wood, 2007). At the other end of the spectrum are those who fully embrace the idea to such an extent that, for instance, they call for the implementation of long-term customer relationship marketing (Bejou, 2005). There are still views in between, like those of Halbesleben, Becker and Buckley (2003) who believe that a sophisticated interpretation of the student-as-customer concept, such as also seeing the student as a participator in the co-creation of the educational process, is probably more realistic and better than being polarised. Since this paper is concerned with UK universities, it will adopt the final position, for, as previously stated, UK higher education institutions are being marketised recently, at least in comparison to the US ones, where for many years many students have largely been self-funded and therefore the debate over students as customers is much more advanced (Clayson and Haley, 2005). Indeed, the final position is almost indispensable with (whatever the position of the university on the student-as-customer concept is) at least in the sense that it is a reflection of two tenets which have been central to the services field and which are particularly true of the higher education process (Telford and Masson, 2005): consumers are actively involved in the service delivery process and the quality of the service experience as perceived by the consumer of the service is largely based on the degree to which what they expect of the service is met (Bateson, 2002; Rodie and Kleine, 2000). Yet even if some institutions de-emphasise the student-as-customer notion, that does not suggest that universities can neglect the basic rule that what is promised must be delivered (East, 2001) or quality issues (Sharrock, 2000). It may follow form this that customer satisfaction and service quality are essentially different notions (Zeithaml and Bitner, 2000). While some critics consider service quality as a precursor to customer satisfaction, others, however, regard customer satisfaction as an antecedent to service quality (Farrell, Souchon and Durden, 2001; Lee, Lee and Yoo, 2000). Because customer satisfaction is usually concerned with multiple aspects (not only one) of service quality (Busacca and Padula, 2005) and this study is focused only on the academic aspect of the service quality in higher education, this research will deal specifically with measuring the perceived service quality rather than customer satisfaction as such. This is also due to the fact that past research into student satisfaction reports that even when satisfaction overall average is at an acceptable level, a considerable portion of informants (many of whom are in their final year) states that it would not recommend the university to others (Blackmore, Douglas and Barnes, 2006).

Service quality, per se, has been highly definition-proof, inherently difficult to measure, and the subject of hot debate in the marketing literature generally over the last two decades (Brady and Cronin, 2001; Dale, 2003). Moreover, no two customers’ expectations of service quality are alike and this has resulted in a lack of standardisation as it differs from context to context (Banwett and Datta, 2003). Therefore, agreement on the best way to define, let alone measure, service quality has not yet seen light (Clewes, 2003).

Likewise, quality in higher education is a complex and multidimensional concept and a consensus regarding a single, suitable definition of quality does not exist (Eagle and Brennan, 2007). However, the importance of service quality, which has been perceived to be of greater significance than quality (Brysland and Curry, 2001), in universities is demonstrated by the students’ search for an evidence of it when making up their minds about what university to opt for (Donaldson and McNicholas, 2004), though the issue of what constitutes service quality in higher education is still debated (Becket and Brookes, 2006). Furthermore, Wood (2001) contends that overseas fee-paying students who pay higher tuition fees are more susceptible to external and internal quality-related issues and are also less likely to be understanding than their British counterparts of a failure of the institution to meet, if not exceed, their expectations.

While some authors have attempted to define service quality in higher education, others have been more interested in discussing a possible set of criteria describing what constitutes it. An example of the former is Voss and Gruber (2006), who define service quality as the ratio of what a student expects to receive to their perceptions of the actual delivery. The latter prefer description over prescription, such as Yeo (2008) who consents that service quality is too complex to be reduced into one aspect, but argues that the most widely held interpretation of service quality in higher education is the academic one, i.e., its link to teacher-student participation with respect to the professionalism-intimacy scale as influencing immediate and lifelong learning. In the UK, the academic aspect of service quality is heavily stressed by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA), the independent body responsible for offering an integrated quality assurance service for higher education across the United Kingdom, in its definition of quality in higher education as “a way of describing how well the learning opportunities available to students help them to achieve their award. It is about making sure that appropriate and effective teaching, support, assessment and learning opportunities are provided for them” (QAA, 2004, p. 1). Whilst it has been reported that undergraduate students’ perceptions of service quality change as they progress from one year to another leading to differences in those aspects of a higher education institution service that students deem significant (O’Neil, 2003), studies on undergraduate students in the UK have shown that the most significant aspects of a university’s service offerings are related to the core academic service, such as the lecture (Douglas, Douglas and Barnes, 2006) and dissertation (Skinner and Croft, 2009). Even in an intensive and extensive research by Price, Matzdorf, Smith and Agahi (2003) designed specifically to explore the impact of facilities (which turn out to have an important influence) on undergraduate student choice of university by surveying a number of UK universities over two years, the main reason behind selecting a university has been found to be academic: availability of the desired course.

However, the question of what comprises a service quality within higher education (considered a highly pure service at least from the personal contact perspective) would also seem to be an emotive one, with customer satisfaction being therefore often established through the quality of person-to-person contacts (Oldfield and Baron, 2000). Research has shown that the manner in which staff present themselves to customers, along the emotions they display during encounters, are associated with, for instance, customers’ affect, their evaluation of service quality (Pugh, 2001), their revisit, repeat purchasing and willingness to spread a positive word about the institution to acquaintances (Tsai, 2001). This is particularly true in service organisations, where the relative perishability, intangibility, heterogeneity, and inseparability of producing the service from its consumption cause difficulty for customers to separate service quality from the quality of the encounter during service delivery (i.e., service interaction); subsequently, customers’ appraisal of service interaction, rather than just the service alone being delivered, becomes indispensable to the evaluation of the whole service experience (Korczynski, 2001). Hence all employees of a university, who, after all, take the lion’s share (about 58%) of UK universities’ spending according to Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA, 2008a), should adhere firmly to the principles of quality customer service, whether they be front-line contact staff engaged with teaching or administration, or non-contact staff involved in administrative or management roles, in order to deliver total student satisfaction (Gold, 2001; Low, 2000). Yet educational success relies crucially on the integrated efforts of both parties concerned; colleges as service providers and students (Cooper, 2007). In addition, students have to willingly incur responsibility for their own education and cannot passively consume the service offered (Svensson and Wood, 2007). Nonetheless, instead of presenting participation for students as a daunting task, students should be helped to realise that in general, people report being happier when they are actively engaged with a challenging task, and less happy when they are just simply consuming goods, entertainment or services (Csikszentmihaiyi, 2000).

To date, studies on marketing UK universities have examined many issues. Examples include: the critical factors considered in student choice (Ball, Davies, David and Reay, 2002; Foskett and Hemsley-Brown, 2001), the borrowing of the concepts and practices of marketing from other sectors to higher education (Gibbs, 2002), the branding of UK universities (Chapleo, 2004 and 2005), defining the government’s aims carefully in order that marketing can be utilised most effectively (Farr, 2003), variability of student ratings of teaching (Coles, 2002), the influence of both personal and institutional technologies in support of learning (Hardy, Haywood, Bates, Paterson, Rhind, Macleod and Haywood, 2008), dissertation-related issues (Lane, Devonport, Milton and Williams, 2003; Todd, Smith and Bannister, 2006), redesigning degrees to respond to the changing needs of a contemporary labour market (Long, Morgan, Lloyd-Parkes and Snee, 2008), etc. However, most studies appear to be focused on university newcomers, i.e. undergraduates (for reasons mainly related to governmental and budgetary concerns), who are remarkably different to postgraduates, who in return receive very little research and attention, although further expansion of postgraduate students is expected to continue well into the next decade (Taylor, 2002). Studies on service quality in a UK higher educational context are somewhat scant, and where research has been conducted, very little have taken postgraduates into consideration (Barnes, 2007). Interestingly though, postgraduate students currently occupy around 24 per cent of all university places, and the majority of them are part-time students, who are the fastest growing segment of students – rising by 108% in ten years (Universities UK, 2008). Yet in its press release – annual report, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA, 2008), the designated handler of student complaints under the 2004 Higher Education Act, states that student complaints have always been on the rise. OIA reports how, for instance, in 2007, applications to the OIA increase by 25% compared to 2006, with 36% of the complainants being postgraduates (although only 23% of UK students are postgraduates) and 64% over 25 years old. These facts have led the OIA conference to call for universities “to make adjustments to cater for the new student population, which is older, more likely to be graduate and from overseas, and less familiar with university life” (p. 1).

It is therefore this cohort of the student population (viz, non-UK postgraduate students who, as explained earlier, are also more sensitive to quality issues than their British colleagues within UK universities) which will be the locus of this exploratory, deductive and empirical study’s pursuit of further insights into the critical factors affecting the perception of the academic aspect of service quality in taught postgraduate service provision. The emphasis here is on taught postgraduate students (rather than research postgraduate ones) as this cohort is usually self-funded, less researched, make more formal contact with the university, provides chances for higher fees and sustained growth, particularly through attracting more non-UK students and the ‘academic’ and ‘industry links’ aspects of service quality are the most critical to it, possibly because it tends to regard the postgraduate experience as an initial step to a career, rather than the life experience opportunity often linked to undergraduate study  (Angell, Heffernan and Megicks, 2008). Yet usually universities have a much firmer grip on the academic aspect than on the industry links one. Thus, service quality is examined here in light of the academic aspect, since in UK, as shown earlier, the quality of the teaching and learning experience (and in particular the core academic service) is highly reflected in QAA definition of quality, UK universities expenditure on staffing and students’ perceptions (that is, both in theory and practice), the issue of quality in higher education seems to be an emotive one dependent largely on personal contact (especially in the most important phase of the study period: the dissertation supervision) and the academic aspect is the most important one for postgraduates. The study is also conducted through the consumer’s eye, for one of the drawbacks in nowadays academic culture is that current research may be too highly shaped from an academic insider’s viewpoint, assuming an “inside-out” approach, driven from the presupposed superior insight of academic insiders and presuming that the inherent knowledge base of those responsible for the business of higher education is sufficient for developing service oriented programmes for students (Sanders, Stevens, Malcom and Coats, 2000). This is especially correct of service quality (Joseph, Yakhou and Stone 2005). For example, research has shown that while UK universities pride themselves on the quality of adopting student-centred modes of teaching, international students (particularly Asians, who, according to HESA (2008b), form the largest share (42%) of the international student population in UK) will normally register a cultural preference for teacher-focused approaches (Howarth, 2003; Lashley, 2002). Thus, “if we do not understand as people, we can never hope to understand a relationship between the business and the customer” (Ellson, 2004, p. 241).

Measuring service quality in higher education

Parasuraman, Zeithaml and Berry’s Service Quality Gap Model (whose authors consider a gap to be an important hinder in obtaining a satisfactory level of quality) contributes substantially to and enhances understanding of the service quality, looking for explanations of the why and how regarding service quality delivery and bearing the essential attributes of determining key aspects of service quality from the consumer and manager viewpoints, underscoring the discrepancies between service providers and consumers with a specific emphasis on expectations and perceptions and comprehending the suggestions for the service management to bridge the gaps (Large and König, 2009; Roche and Laroche, 2005). A brief explanation of these gaps (see figure 1), some of their causes, effects and solutions (Cater-Steel, 2008; Mudie and Pirrie, 2006) can be as follows (some adaptations of these explanations to an educational context is provided as well):

Gap 1 – many service firms plainly do not comprehend what really matters to customers and their expectations. The closure of this gap can happen only via knowledge from front-line staff (e.g., lecturers) and market research (e.g., students’ surveys).

Gap 2 – even when customers’ expectations are grasped, managers still find difficulties in transforming that grasp into service quality particulars.

The case might be so due to:

  • The administrations’ feeling that customer expectations are unrealistic or unreasonable (e.g., students’ complaints about lecturers’ adoption of student-centred approaches). Investigating this is for the most part very hard.
  • The management’s discretion that the extent of variability characterising services eludes standardisation (e.g., in dissertation supervision, different students require different approaches in guidance). Ironically, reduction of variability is being more cited as an essential reason behind the standardisation of services.
  • The lack of true commitment on the management’s part to service quality. Under the pressure of short-run financial deadlines (e.g., allocating the largest share of spending to staff salaries and budgetary constraints on hiring more qualified lecturers) many service organisations are unwilling to exert quality efforts.

Gap 3 – even where formal instructions or standards for sustaining service quality are in operation, the delivery of a quality service is not certain. This might be the result of poor misallocation of resources (technology, personnel, systems, university infrastructure etc.).

Gap 4 – service companies’ integrated marketing communications can influence consumer expectations. Making attractive promises that cannot be delivered (through, for example, some very glossy brochures) is not without its blowbacks (even if it is as apparently indirect and simple as filling the university’s website with photos taken in a  sunny weather in a time where the weather in UK is rainy for the most part of the year).

Gap 5 – This gap poses the main challenge. Customer expectations must at least be met (if not exceeded) in order for good quality to be ascertained. Perceived service quality is the ratio of what the customer expects to what he/she perceives of service delivery. This gap has been so studied (because it holds high significance) that it gave birth to SERVQUAL.

Determining critical aspects of the service delivery underlies the preponderant value in service quality measurement in higher education (Abdullah, 2006a). Corollary to this belief is the need for service quality models to enable management to determine high quality and to know where problems lie (Smith, Smith and Clarke, 2007). Various models of assessing service quality have been suggested, many of which are context-related (e.g., airline companies – Robledo, 2001; Higher education sector – Abdullah, 2006b). However, the most cited, durably popular, and thoroughly researched method of measuring service quality of all the ones proposed so far has been SERVQUAL, which could be modified to best suit a higher education context (Brochado, 2009), despite being criticised (Athanassopoulos, Gounaris and Stathakopoulos, 2001). Parasuraman (2004), the principal co-author of SERVQUAL (an instrument for measuring service quality as perceived by customers) with Len Berry and Valarie Zeithaml, comments on it as a five-faceted, two-part scale, which gauges customers’ expectations and perceptions, respectively, together with a host of service attributes eventually categorised into the following five dimensions:

  1. Reliability. Ability to carry out the promised service dependably and accurately.
  2. Responsiveness. Willingness to help customers and offer prompt service.
  3. Assurance. Courtesy and knowledge of staff and their ability to inspire confidence and trust.
  4. Empathy. Individualised, caring attention with which the company provides its customers.
  5. Tangibles. Appearance of personnel, equipment, physical facilities and communication materials.

Also, in his forward to a special issue of Performance Measurement and Metrics, Parasuraman (2002) distinguishes (after intensive and extensive research with his co-authors) between two levels of expectations and thus incorporates them into the first part of the SERVQUAL measure:

  1. Adequate service level: the least level of service customers are willing to accept.
  2. Desired service level: the level of service representing what customers believe can and should be provided, i.e.  ”realistically ideal” one.

He describes the continuum between these two levels as a zone of tolerance, reflecting service performance levels customers would consider satisfactory. Douglas and Connor (2003), however, relate some critique of SERVQUAL such as its failing to take account of the different academic fields of economics, psychology and social sciences, concerns to do with measuring time, stability over time, the service quality aspects, the gauging instrument, employing various scores, and the generic character of the scale. To alleviate the negative effects of most of these and in line with the nature of this study, a qualitative adaptation of SERVQUAL to assess service quality in higher education is utilised here: SERVQUAL, which has initially evaluated 10 dimensions of service quality, has been finally modified to five: Reliability, Assurance, Tangibles, Empathy, and Responsiveness (RATER), whereby the refined RATER scale is a useful and simple proposal for qualitatively gaining insight into and ascertaining customers’ service experiences and has been largely utilised by service delivery firms to cement the rift between consumer expectations and perceptions (Brysland and Curry, 2001; Yeo, 2008).

Limitations of literature review

It is deemed significant to wrap up with a word of caution regarding this critique of the extant literature on the topics reviewed. A review article, by its very nature, (a) has to be restricted in its ambitions: it is more disposed towards posing questions rather than answering them; and (b) is, as expected, limited by the sum of articles that it can feasibly tackle: in highlighting main developing themes (in the literature since 2000), it will most probably have missed some papers that might have added a fruitful dimension to the review (Doherty and Ellis-Chadwick, 2006). However, this critique has probably been able to critically review and evaluate key academic contributions to the fields under investigation. Therefore, it is hoped that very few important papers have been unaddressed, and that the main issues of relevant importance have been discussed.














Every discourse, even a poetic or oracular sentence, carries with it a system of rules for producing analogous things and thus an outline of methodology”

Jacques Derrida, 1930-2004, French philosopher

There are many research methodologies (strategies that transform epistemological and ontological positions into guidelines that manifest how research is to be undertaken) that can be utilised to undertake a study related to services marketing (Reid and Plankand, 2003; Smith and Fletcher, 2004). However, no matter what the context and question being studied are, it is vital that there is some sort of alignment between the research methodology to be used, its setting and the approach adopted (Easterby-Smith, Thorpe and Jackson, 2008). Thus, each research methodology has its merits and demerits that rely mainly upon three conditions (Kidd, 2002; Smith, 2003; Yin, 2003):

a) the kind of research question,

b) the control the researcher has over the actual behavioural events,

c) the emphasis on contemporary as opposed to historical phenomena.

As the type of research question here is exploratory, and as the researcher, unlike, say, a lab scientist, has the least (if any) control on events (such as influencing students’ perceptions) and attempts to identify critical factors affecting current students rather than, for example, reviewing factors that have historically impacted the perception of non-UK postgraduate students studying in the UK overtime, this thesis will employ a qualitative inquiry. This is so also because qualitative methodology is very suitable when undertaking exploratory research, especially when little is identified about the issue under investigation (Crosby, DiClemente, Green, and Salazar, 2006); where subjects under study can hardly be controlled, for the more they can be controlled, the more quantitative methodology is suitable (Peca, 2000); and while attempting to gain an insight into a contemporary phenomenon in a real-life context, particularly when the borders between the context (in this case service quality) and phenomenon (in this case perceptions) are hazy (Birnbaum, Emig and Fisher, 2005).

Methodologies, then, whether qualitative (which attempts to utilise first-hand familiarity with different contexts to induce hypotheses) or quantitative (which utilises numbers to test hypotheses), like theories, cannot be false or true, only more or less useful (Silverman, 2004). In whatever case, despite the absence up till now of a ‘perfect’ research methodology or (at the very least) a unanimously approved methodology, a sound and clear methodology dependent upon scientific principles and methods should be adopted when researching in any form (Eldabi, Irani, Paul and Love, 2002). This is why non-scientific methodologies, i.e., those which do not adopt scientific criteria (e.g., theory, observation, testing, findings, conclusions, etc.) such as theological methodologies, have been discounted here, although it is possible to explore within such frameworks the critical factors affecting student perceptions (Gray, Williamson, Karp and Dalphin, 2007).

Theoretical underpinnings

The theoretical underpinnings of almost all kinds of research in academic disciplines today could be traceable back to the work of ancient Greek philosophers (e.g., Aristotle), though in Europe this work has been developed more profoundly, with substitutes to these philosophical methods emerging and reflecting the increasing variations in the manner in which research is undertaken (Day and Ma, 2009). In marketing, depending mainly upon context (i.e., constraints such as budget and time, the nature of the researcher, the research, its aims and objectives, etc.), different types of research can be conducted (Zikmund, 2003; Easterby-Smith, Thorpe and Lowe, 2002; Malhotra, 2006). Yet as both marketing and education appear to bear many essential resemblances with social science phenomena (indeed, it has been argued that marketing (Toksoy and Ayyildiz, 2004) and education (Cragun and Cragun, 2006) are social sciences), it is deemed appropriate here to discuss issues related to social research. Action research could have been used instead, but in marketing (Coghlan, and Brannick, 2001) and education (McKay and Marshall, 2001), it is more appropriate when the focus is on employee resolution of internal affairs, rather than external customers, who are in this case the students.

Most social research remains self-consciously scientific, although it is diverse, pluralistic, complex, can be defined and conducted in many ways and despite criticisms levelled at subjecting inquiry into human behaviour to the principles of scientific knowledge (Alexander, 2005; Law, 2004). Since the nature of this study is exploratory, it will observe Sarantakos’s (2005, p.4) definition: “the purposive and rigorous investigation that aims to generate new knowledge … [and] … is about discovery, expanding the horizons of the known, confidence, new ideas and new conclusions about all aspects of life” [Italics added] (see Sarantakos’s figures: 3,4 and 5).

In social research, ontological positions adopted are often underlined by either positivist or interpretivist epistemologies (Neuman, 2006; Wright and Hill, 2004). The particular manner in which ontologies and epistemologies impact on the process and structure of social research is explicated by the discipline called philosophy of science (Poser, 2001). Yet what are ontology, epistemology and paradigm?

Figure 3 (p. 29)

The foundations of research







Figure 4 (p. 30)

Theoretical foundations of social research

Deals with


The nature of reality

ASKS: What is the nature of reality?

Is it objective (out there), constructed, subjective?

OR BETTER: What does research focus on?


The nature of knowledge

ASKS: How do we know what we know?

What is the way in which reality is known to us?

OR BETTER: What kind of knowledge is research looking for?


The nature of research design and methods

ASKS: How do we gain knowledge about the world?

OR BETTER: How is research constructed and conducted?


The execution of research designs

Figure 5 (p. 31)

Paradigms: Theoretical construction of research



Symbolic Interactionism;


Feminism; etc.











Fixed design

Fixed/flexible design



Inwagen (2001) asserts the difficulties of and controversies on defining ontology (which has been approached differently throughout history), but maintains that it has been traditionally defined as the science of being as such, and despite the fact that the term ontology is a 17th century coinage (created to replace the term metaphysics), the tradition can be dated back to Aristotle’s claim, in the opening line of the 4th book of theMetaphysics, that there is an episteme that examines being as being. However, Solomon (2005, p. 57) opines that metaphysics, the study of “the way the world really is”, starts where the answers to a set of questions (which are normally regarded as ontology) concerning substance and how it is demonstrated in specific things (such as trees and people) are provided:

  1. How many substances exist? (pluralism versus monism)
  2. What are they? (air, water, numbers, fire, minds, something unknown, atoms, spirit?)
  3. How are individual things comprised? (And how do we differentiate them, identify them, re-identify them?)
  4. How do various things and (in case there is more than one) various substances interact?

Yet for many contemporary philosophers, the obsession with developing an ontology that can account for human experiences in the world is now gone (simply because they realise that it has little to offer – if any – in answering the questions posited about the world) and replaced by discussions of ideas, language and confident, assertive statements that epistemology alone is first (Hight, 2008). Indeed, Putnam (2004) pronounces ontology dead, claiming that the attempt to offer an ontological explanation to the objectivity of, say, either ethics or mathematics is, in fact, an attempt to present justifications that are extraneous to ethics and mathematics – and hence extremely misguided. Probably such kind of arguments demonstrate that, even when it comes to debating ontology per se, “for any ontology there is an epistemology” (Schraefel, 2005, p. 6). Therefore, this dissertation’s author assumes the ontological position of interpretivist epistemology, which entertains the idea of multiple realities, and in which exploring is more commonly related to the aim of research (Andrist, Nicholas and Wolf, 2005).


Sosa and Kim (2000) describe epistemology as a philosophical probe into the extent, nature and conditions of human knowledge; an inquiry comprising some of the most persistent and perplexing issues in all of philosophy; issues that extensively shape its history, such as scepticism and the rationalism/empiricism debate, together with its Hegelian and Kantian aftermath. They contend that such matters, despite sounding at first sight alien to common sense, nevertheless stem naturally from straightforward reflection on the most ordinary knowledge about the universe surrounding us; knowledge created or maintained via memory, induction or perception.

However, Steup (2005) distinguishes between one broad description and another narrow one: the former states that epistemology is about questions related to the creation and dissemination of knowledge in specific areas of inquiry; the latter, though, approaches epistemology as the study of justified belief and knowledge. In layperson’s terms, epistemology asks the following questions: What counts as knowledge? What is the relationship between what is known and the knower? How do we come to know what we know (Krauss, 2005)? This paper’s author seeks answers to such questions as an interpretivist who believes that knowledge is established via the meanings (factors affecting perceptions) associated with the phenomenon (service quality) under investigation; inquirers interact (observe, interview, etc.) with the subjects of study (students) to collect data; inquiry changes both subject and researcher; and knowledge is time- and context- dependent (Coll and Chapman, 2000; Cousins, 2002).

Regarding epistemology in social research, Hyde, Lohan and McDonnell (2004) identify positivism and interpretivism as two key research approaches or methodological paradigms – research perspectives which are composed of research methods or techniques and philosophical traditions which have been developed to practice the philosophical ideas in conducting research.


Cohen, Manion and Morrison (2000) illustrate how positivism is deeply rooted in natural sciences and historically related to the 19th century French philosopher August Comte, although it has been a recurrent theme in Western history since the Ancient Greeks up till now. They further point out that ever since Comte has coined the term to describe a philosophical position, it has been utilised by philosophers in such various ways that it is now extremely hard to associate it with a consistent and precise meaning. Yet Burfeind and Bartusch (2005) relate that positivism, as developed by Comte in response to severe criticism unleashed against classical thought as unscientific, is a scientific approach (employing scientific methods which include measurement, observation, analysis, description, etc.) for observing and concluding about social behaviour, with an enduring commitment to measurement. In Bryman’s (2004) opinion, positivism assumes that: (1) only knowledge and phenomena based on actual sense experience can be confirmed as authentic knowledge (phenomenalism); (2) theories are utilised to make hypotheses which can be tested and permit explanations of laws to be evaluated (deductivism); (3) knowledge can be generated by gathering facts which offer the basis for laws (inductivism); (4) science can and must be undertaken in a manner which is objective and value-free; and (5) there exists a conspicuous distinction between normative and scientific assumptions. Thus, elements such as historical precedents, metaphors, symmetry, morality and authority are condemned by positivism as unscientific, without meaning or only questions of temperament (Pethő, 2005).

However, despite the dominance and popularity of positivistic approaches in marketing research (Chung and Alagaratnam, 2001) and in education in general (Jones, 2000), they have not been spared criticisms. Cohen, Manion and Morrison (2007) count some of them:

  • The critique of positivism as the mathematisation of notions about nature.
  • Positivism has been assigned the status of a religion (scientism).
  • Positivism’s appeal to instrumental reason and the passivity of behaviourism and its interest in control posit a serious threat to the more humanitarian, creative and open-ended facets of social behaviour.
  • Positivism ignores our unique privilege to construe our experiences and represent them to ourselves.
  • Science becomes a matter of alienation from nature and our true selves in its pursuit of objectivity. The importance behind intellectual activity lies in the impact it has on burgeoning our degree of awareness and consciousness; a burgeoning which has been hindered by the extreme effect that positivism has on aspects of intellectual life.

The last bullet point is of a particular interest. Marketing research, as practised and taught today in business school, underscores the positivist survey methodology as the cornerstone to robust research and findings which are generalisable; but this positivistic, theory testing research impedes theory advancement in marketing and is more often than not directed at techniques rather than at useful findings that can enhance comprehension of key phenomena and have an influence upon society and firms, as demonstrated by the extreme disregard to business school research by executives and key managers (Perry and Gummesson, 2004). From marketing managers’ responses to one survey, “clear evidence was obtained that academic marketing journals are neither read nor recognised by the great bulk of the sample” (Mckenzie, Wright, Bal and Baron, 2002, p. 1196). Therefore, what kind of other windows should be thrown open as well to let in much-needed fresh air and advance theory and practice (and suit this dissertation’s author’s view of the world)?


Interpretivism, usually regarded as deriving from the works of the sophists from Ancient Greek times who form a school of thought based on rhetoric and logic, is a contrasting epistemology to positivism, emphasising subjectivity and multiple realities, treating people and their institutions as fundamentally different and based on subjective interpretation and meaning (Bolan and Mende, 2004). It advocates the view that, for the researcher, it is necessary to grasp and appreciate the differences between individuals and comprehend how people make sense of their own worlds, with human action being seen as meaningful and purposeful rather than determined by external factors (Saunders, Lewis, and Thornhill, 2003). The human organisation becomes a social site, where humans are not conceived to be objects like other objects, but are active sense makers and participants like the researcher, who in turn attempts to get close to the respondents and get a feeling for their ideas, meanings, wants, consciousness, constraints and practices (Alvesson and Deetz, 2001), with the aim of seeking the rich detail of soft ethnographic data (Hart, 2007). The interpretivist perspective highlights how metaphor, pre-understanding and paradigm predetermine our essential conceptualisations of what we want to study – our interpretations and perceptions of and approaches to what we experience are filtrated by a host of vocabularies, assumptions and expectations that guide the entire project and are critical to the findings we arrive at (Alvesson, 2002).

Nonetheless, Seale (2004) points out that interpretivism as known today, or theVerstehen tradition in the human sciences (in which interpretivism is originated), is mainly a response in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by neo-Kantian German sociologists and historians (e.g., Max Weber, Wilhelm Dilthey) to the then predominant philosophy of positivism (which is rooted in natural sciences), contending that human sciences (which seek to understand human action) are substantially dissimilar in purpose and nature with natural sciences (e.g., the subject matter of the social sciences – humans and their organisations – is essentially different from that of the natural sciences and whereas interpretivism aims to understand human behaviour, positivism aims to explain it). According to Denzin and Lincoln (2003), for an interpretivist, what differentiates movement of physical objects from human action is that the latter is fundamentally meaningful; thence, to comprehend a specific social action (e.g., teaching), the researcher must understand the meanings that form that action. This process of understanding or interpreting (of obtaining Verstehen – or interpretive understanding) is differentially represented; consequently, from an interpretivist paradigm, ontology is relativist (there are many realities), epistemology is subjective (inquirer and informant co-create understandings) and a naturalistic (in the natural world) set of methodological procedures is assumed (Flick, 2009).

Nevertheless, although there appears to be an increase in practitioner-undertaken interpretivist research in key marketplaces such as the UK (Malhotra and Peterson, 2001), Blaikie (2000) pinpoints some frequent criticisms of this epistemology:

  • When interpretivists try to define the meaningful nature of social life, they often use a method which is similar to that used by positivists.
  • It is not possible to know whether inquirers obtain a true account of the informant’s meanings.
  • Abiding by the essential factors of interpretivist research (motives, intention, reason, etc.) is somewhat hard to maintain; reflective control is not always present.
  •  Interpretivism fails to take into account the role of institutional structures, specially the relations of power and division of interest.
  • Interpretivism cannot tackle the conditions and factors that result in interpretations and meanings, beliefs, actions, rules and the like.

There are still others who believe that many essential arguments and assumptions that make up the positivist-vs-interpretivist rhetoric are vacuous and unhelpful; after all, both interpretivist and positivist perspectives on research have substantial value, and, contrary to the current rhetoric, profound similarities rather than profound differences underlie them (Weber, 2004). As the aim and objectives of this study are primarily exploratory by nature, it will adhere to a mainly interpretivist epistemology. The point here is not to argue that positivism (or even quantitative methodology to that effect) is inferior to interpretivism (qualitative methodology) or vice versa; but rather, as the leading services marketing scholar Gummesson (2000b, p.2) aptly puts it, to show how “a greater awareness of the possibilities and limitations of carrying out research by means of qualitative methods … ought to lead to improvements in the quality and usefulness of academic research in business administration”. Further, the researcher here believes that he is a qualitative interpretivist, and when marketing/educational researchers (or others) opt for research methodology and methods they will inevitably be affected by their underlying ontological and epistemological position (Dobson, 2002; Greenbank, 2003). Herein lies the importance of acknowledging the researcher’s underlying values (and how they influence the research process) for evaluating their research (Berg, 2001; Williams, 2000)

Quantitative methodology and methods

The mainstream methodologies in research are the qualitative and quantitative ones (Proctor, 2000). The linchpin of quantitative methodology is the positivistic paradigm which states that (1) the nature of reality is dealt with through the objectivist and realist ontology; (2) there is a set of objective facts (i.e., a – simple and fixed – reality ‘out there’ and rational individuals governed by social laws and regularities which can be measured and quantified) waiting for discovery by skilfully trained inquirers via predicting the course of events; and (3) science is seen as a bunch of procedures and strict rules which are value free and objective (Haslam and McGarty, 2003; Neuman, 2003). Put simply, there is a world out there that can be recorded and analysed independently of individuals’ interpretations of it. Yet detractors of this methodology reject its assumptions and argue that attributes of the world only exist as a consequence of a vast multitude of meanings which are actively constructed by groups within it (Westerners, scientists, students, etc.); therefore, there is no such thing as an objective fact, and the process of discovery is fundamentally one that comprises presenting new meanings on specific experiences (Guba and Lincoln, 2000; Long, White, Friedman and Brazeal, 2000).

Quantitative methods (such as surveys and experiments) help measure variables and analyse (usually via computer software) and produce (normally in the form of figures, charts and graphs) statistical data which themselves help draw conclusions about the status of variables under study, following the formulation of a hypothesis – an assumption about the (cause-effect) relations between variables or about the status of events (May, 2001). Some advantages of the quantitative approach are that it offers a larger coverage of the range of situations, is economical as a whole, fast, and more suitable when resources and time are restricted and when statistical results are being sought (Zawawi, 2007).

Quantitative methods could have been utilised in this thesis; however, they are not, as they are less appropriate for its aim; namely, exploring factors affecting perceptions in depth (Quirk, Olver, Hammond and Davies, 2008). Also, quantitative methodology, which runs against this thesis’s author’s values underlying his view of the world:

  1. focuses on the disconfirmation of extant theories instead of creating new ones.
  2. regards persons (and even some of their parts, such as attitude and memory) as separable from their social contexts.
  3. demands an objectivity (researcher’s distance form the subjects/topic under investigation) which in itself is a sort of social relationship and possibly unfeasible.
  4. blinds the researcher to his/her active role in and impact on the research process which is the social context and can only allow the collecting of superficial data.
  5. utilises highly structured research methods, and highly structured research methods predetermine the nature of resulting information (Coolican, 2004).

As argued earlier, (the hitherto mainly positivistic) research in marketing is suffering from many problems. Piercy (2002), for example, arrives at the following conclusion in his evaluation of research in marketing: “there is a pathology of mediocrity and a process of trivialization . . . which threatens its scientific status, its practical importance, and its future as a major part of business-school curricula” (p. 352). In the UK, citing how out of the 16 academic fields with which the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is charged, Management and Business Studies has the lowest success rate both in 2000/2001 and in 2001/2002 (21 per cent and 16 per cent respectively) of ESRC research grant applications, Littler and Tynan (2005) point out that research in marketing and, in fact, in the whole business and management academic area, is unsatisfactory and the steps taken thus far to solve the problems are not that fruitful. So what is the other main alternative methodology to improve this unenviable status quo of (positivistic-ridden) research in marketing?

Qualitative methodology and methods

The stronghold of qualitative methodology is the interpretivist paradigm, which acknowledges subjectivity, the notion that research can lead to different or ‘multiple realities’ and comprises many social viewpoints, most notably ethnomethodology, phenomenology, feminism and symbolic interactionism (Denscombe, 2003; Denzin and Lincoln, 2008; Pring, 2000).  Followers of this paradigm in general believe that (a) society does not have a fixed structure, whether hidden or not; (b) the social world is formed by the interactions of people; (c) there are values and norms, but they do not exist as well-defined constructs; rather, they are modified and utilised by individuals as part of their daily lives; (d) persons (or actors, as many interpretivists call them) interpret events and act in response; and (e) in spite of external pressures put upon individuals, people are not thought of as being controlled by some sort of external system (Flick, 2006; Roy, 2001). Thus, researchers employing qualitative methodology strive for obtaining an in-depth comprehension and elaborated description of a specific aspect of a group’s experience(s); exploring how group members express and ascribe meaning to their grasp of themselves, their experiences and/or their worlds; depicting and figuring out in detail social events and gaining insight into why they are taking place, rather than how often; and gaining an understanding of ambiguity, complexity and the particular detailed processes happening in a social context (Yates, 2004). Note here the appropriateness of employing qualitative methodology for the purposes of this paper in light of these objectives (especially the first one) which are usually sought by interpretivists.

The main merits of qualitative approach include: the participants’ use of their own words to describe themselves, the adaptability of these methods for exploratory research (such as this dissertation) on processes and issues about which little is known (Stankosky, 2005), the resulting data have more depth and greater richness of context (Aaker, Kumar and Day, 2001) and providing access to the meanings that govern human actions (Ekanem, 2007). Nevertheless, qualitative methodology has in recent years been criticised (Boyd, 2000). More important, managers and policy-makers have generally sensed that qualitative methods, particularly those employing an interpretivist perspective, have not offered clearly demarcated solutions; rather, they have provided an excessively complex analysis of issues (Nisbet, 2000), contrary to quantitative approaches, which have been considered as more likely to present solutions and a ‘scientific’ basis for governmental decisions (Carr, 2000). For instance, in the UK, Chris Woodhead, the Chief Inspector of Schools in England from 1994 until 2000 and one of the most controversial figures in debates on the direction of English education policy, has condemned qualitative research as ‘woolly and simplistic’ and a ‘massive waste of taxpayers’ money’ (as cited in Wellington, 2000, p. 167). Also, David Blunkett (2000), who has served as the Education Secretary and Home Secretary, praises the benefits of objective scientific evidence reliant upon large scale quantitative research. However, he acknowledges the usefulness of qualitative methods as an adjunct to quantitative methods. In marketing, doubtful of the mainstream option of approaches, Gummesson (2001) proposes substitute paths with qualitative rather than quantitative inquiry in focus.

It should be noted here that attempts to overemphasise the choice between methodologies by drawing the great war line between quantitative and qualitative methodologies, paving the way for a happy marriage between them (through, for example, using both in the same research) or discarding both in search for others, may be quite misleading, as it redirects attention to less significant dimensions of research, such as the techniques via which social life is represented in the course of research, as opposed to core ones, say, the process of representing social reality (Alvesson and Skoldberg, 2000). This over-preoccupation with research methodologies – or “tyranny of methodologies” may negatively affect the quality of research as well (Gallupe, 2007, p. 20). After all, any distinction between quantitative and qualitative approaches is at best approximate, for both kinds of research are umbrella sections under which there are various actual methods (Hanson and Grimmer, 2007; Wilson and Natale, 2001). In addition, perspectives on the research process and the kind of data regarded as satisfactory are very much based on how those conducting the research view the world, but much falls between and within the two paradigms of interpretivism and positivism, though such a distinction often proves to be rather too naïve, failing to take account of a myriad of variations (Pring, 2004). Moreover, many of those in favour of, for instance, action research argue that this two-paradigm perspective on research stems from a traditional academic view and they are sceptical of its implementation in professionally based research, such as McNiff and Whitehead (2006), who propose critical theoretical and living theory approaches as being more suitable. Furthermore, Clough and Nutbrown (2002, p. 19) opine that research studies often navigate between these paradigms, opting for the most suitable for various section of the study; for, after all, “the issue is not so much a question of which paradigm to work within but how to dissolve that distinction in the interests of developing research design which serves the investigation of the questions posed through that research” [italics added]. As have been (and will still be) argued, the most appropriate techniques for the inquiry into the questions of this study are the qualitative methods. Three of these have been deemed most relevant and subsequently will be discussed shortly after discussing one type of desk research which has been used as well in this study.

Desk Research

Normally, reviewing what is already known (extant information and data) is the first step in any marketing research process (in order to put into – theoretical – context the results of analysis by providing expert opinions) and has clear economic advantages (Poppy, 2005; Wilson, 2003). If the main aim of marketing research is to offer effective solutions efficiently (especially for this paper’s zero-budget researcher), then desk research can ensure this (Housden, 2006). Besides, “Conducting reviews of existing research is a critical competence for a scholar … to position their contribution to knowledge and to construct reasoned, logical and substantiated arguments” (Denyer and Tranfield, 2006, p. 216). Therefore, this study begins with a desk research. Identified by Holland and Poppy (2007) as “…the identification and analysis of information that has already been compiled and published in some form or other” (p. 1), they clarify that this kind of information is labelled as secondary since it already exists vis-à-vis primary which would entail a research study to generate new data. Desk research can be utilised highly effectively to provide leads which help the researcher makes the most out of the research budget and time and by providing the previous and current framework, desk research offers an opportunity for trends to be highlighted and parallels identified, though the sort of information available for desk research may be very limited and its findings can be old, irrelevant or inadequate (Crouch and Housden, 2003; Sugandhi, 2003).

According to Halldorsson and Arlbjorn (2005), there are, broadly speaking, two types of desk research: theorising and literature review. They suggest that both are compatible with qualitative empirical research designs; however, whilst new theoretical or earlier developed elements are synthesised to form a new theoretical insight in theorising, literature review involves article discussions and relating to what has already been available in the discipline; therefore, the main difference is a type of development which does not happen in a literature review. As this paper does not seek theorising, it will adhere to literature review to define and limit the issue worked upon – academic aspect of service quality –, to contextualise the study historically – in the services and higher education marketing and why it is a challenge to market them –, to avert unnecessary replication, to critically appraise promising research methods or the comparatively less used ones in marketing such as the qualitative techniques and to compare results to past research and propose further research (Fink, 2005; Galvan, 2005; Pan, 2004).


Arguably familiar to most of humans and the fundamental base of all research methods, observation involves the ethical and systematic recording of what an inquirer notes ‘in the field’ (Daymon and Holloway, 2002; Hague, 2002; Rowley, 2004). Observation has been classified with respect to different dichotomies; it can be: employed to yield qualitative or quantitative data, recorded using humans or machines, overt or covert, unstructured or structured, undertaken in a controlled or natural context with either non-participatory or participatory observers (Burns and Bush, 2000; Gummesson, 2007; Chamberlain and Broderick, 2007). Describing qualitative observation as ethnographic techniques with low degree of structuring to capture traits of customers that come naturally, that they cannot express or that they may not be aware of, Malhotra and Birks (2000) hail it as high in uncovering subconscious, innovative and sensitive information, with no moderator bias when used in covert manner and in isolation. Bartlett and Burton (2007) add that in informal full participant observation the researcher may store notes of events mentally to be written up later as soon as possible. They also report how translating what has been observed into questions to be raised later in a focus group/interview (which is what is done in this study) by the observer will give a comprehension of why something happened as well as a descriptive account, which ultimately contributes to the production of a more rigorous and thorough piece of research.

Thus, to make the most out of observation, the inquirer in this study (who is an MSc marketing international student) has throughout the duration of his study conducted covert qualitative informal full participant observation which yields the data used, inter alia, to inform the focus group and interview questions. Yet, like any method (Chisnall, 2005; Saunders, 2007), observation is not without its drawbacks:

  • When people are aware of being observed, especially by a ‘foreigner’, they may modify the patterns of their normal behaviour. However, in this study, the researcher is himself a student.
  • The observer’s biases, expectations or assumptions may creep into the observation process. To minimise the effect of that, the researcher has made sure not to be too involved socially or emotionally with his colleagues.
  • Observation is an engrossing, time consuming and costly method with ethical considerations arising from issues such as the observer being disguised or the informants not being informed of the research process, etc. To overcome that, the inquirer is already a student and respondents know very well beforehand that the researcher’s thesis will tackle questions related to international students’ experiences. In fact, the researcher has been regularly approached by his colleagues (some of whom are also respondents in this study and long ago know that their conversations will be informing the researcher’s dissertation) for academic advice because of what they perceive of him as a high-achieving student.

Machine observation could have been conducted; however, that would have been extremely expensive, time-consuming and made interpreting data more difficult (Bradley, 2007; Stevens, Wrenn, Sherwood and Ruddick, 2005).

Focus Group

A focus group is “a group of people brought together to participate in the discussion of an area of interest”, where “the moderator, acting as first among equals, intervenes i.e. moderates, only to keep the topic of discussion on the area of interest” (Boddy, 2005, p. 251). The main benefit from conducting a focus group is that it provides participants with the opportunity to voice openly their views about a research object in the form of a group interview and in an interactive manner (Bloor, Frankland, Thomas and Robson, 2001; Green, Draper and Dowler, 2003; Wade, 2002). The sample size (or the number of informants in a focus group who are usually homogenous in some way, e.g., students), though recommendations vary, ranges generally from eight to twelve, for while a group less than eight participants might be counterproductive with reference to generating enough interactions to obtain useful findings, more than 12 informants may restrict, instead of foster, subjects’ interaction (Greenbaum, 2000; Krueger and Casey, 2000; Langer, 2001; McColl, 2005). This interaction happening in group dynamics is a crucial factor for the success of a focus group and is a double-edged weapon: it may prevent the interplay of views (due, for example, to dominant speakers) or it may stimulate and generate an exchange of opinions that results in rich information (Mariampolski, 2001; Robson, 2002).

As the focus group in this research is of a particular importance (it is the linking chain of methodology: informed by observation and informing individual depth interviewing), special care has been taken in conducting it. It observes the overall 1.5-hour limit usually recommended (exact time recommendations may vary depending mainly on topic and number of questions and respondents), from the very beginning – welcoming participants – to the very end – thanking them (Awre, 2004; Belk, 2006; Murray, 2006). Its type is exploratory, which is suitable when exploring influencing factors, includes generating ideas amongst its primary aims and reflects the exploratory nature of this study (Richardson and Rabiee, 2001; Kehoe and Lindgren, 2002). It is also led by a moderator team (one experienced; another assistant) to counter much of the bias in the manner participation and content is demonstrated (Langford and McDonagh, 2003; Prince and Davies, 2001). Finally, it is followed by a follow-up individual depth interviewing, to further probe its results, alleviate the negative effects of dominant participants, engage others who prefer being interviewed in their own time, fear airing their views publicly and/or would state socially acceptable opinions rather than their own in a group setting (Brown; 2003; Bruseberg and McDonagh, 2003; Maguire, 2003). A questionnaire could have been used instead; however, it would have resulted in data less rich, large item non-response and designing and verbal problems (Ilieva, Baron and Healey, 2002; Manfreda, Batagelj, and Vehovar, 2002; Reja, Manfreda, Hlebec and Vehovar, 2003).

Individual depth interviewing

In marketing research, a depth interview is “a process of probing for the feelings, associations, reasons for behaviour of a consumer of a product category or brand through a mostly unstructured interview consisting of a lot of open-ended questions” (Nargundkar, 2004, p. 42). The case here is not getting a list of questions answered in as much as gaining insights; therefore, this paper’s researcher modifies the questions in the course of the conversation so that they are related to the answers heard (and the exploration of factors influencing perceptions) rather than following doggedly the original questions (Creswell, 2007; Wrenn, Stevens and Loudon, 2002). These questions, like those of the focus group, have been phrased by an English-Language-and-Literature graduate, translator and instructor, who furthermore consults his teaching group (who have an extensive experience in teaching English for international students) and finally, the questions are piloted with a smaller group of sample to minimise sensitive issues, ambiguity, misunderstanding, etc. Therefore, a number of small practical modifications, based on feedback, are made to the interviewing questions, mainly to ensure that wording of questions is suitable and apprehensible for a basic level of spoken and written English (as is done with the focus group’s questions – see Appendices 1 and 2 for focus group and interviewing questions, respectively). To yet enhance clarity, where deemed necessary, questions have been followed by some examples for illustration purposes.

Depth interviews fathom bottoms of underlying motives and perceptions (which is related to this thesis’s aim), relate answers directly to the participant and relieve the respondent of social pressure to conform (Bryman and Bell, 2003; Chrzanowska, 2002; Hackley, 2003). However, they require a highly skilled interviewer, are costly, time-consuming and the findings gathered are difficult to interpret and analyse (Cassell and Symon, 2004; Desai, 2002; Fern, 2001).

Self-administered online surveys could have replaced individual depth interviewing; nevertheless, they have extremely limited (if any) ability to motivate and explore in-depth (which is the aim of this study) as a trained interviewer could do (Brown, Culkin and Fletcher, 2001; Evans and Mathur, 2005; Scholl, Mulders and Drent, 2002).

Sampling, thematic analysis, validity, reliability and ethics

In marketing research, sampling is collecting data from a portion of a larger population or group, whereby the aim is to ascertain target segments efficiently and effectively by creating and implementing representative sample plans (Proctor, 2005; Wrenn, Stevens and Loudon, 2007). There are two main kinds of sampling methods that are employed in attaining the chosen sample: probability and non-probability sampling (Parasuraman, Grewal and Krishnan, 2004; Thrusfield, 2005). While in the former each respondent has a known, nonzero opportunity of being selected, in the latter the probability of being selected is simply unknown (Wright and Crimp, 2000; Morgan, Gliner and Harmon, 2006). Probability sampling could have been used in this study, but probability methods, in addition to usually being time-consuming and costly, require a sample frame (a comprehensive list of the population of interest) and that list or group used for choosing possible participants (in this case international postgraduates in UK universities) is not available (Kent, 2007; Nelson and Allred, 2005). Thus, in line with the aim and nature of this study, non-probability convenience sampling is used. In convenience (or available/accidental) sampling, subjects who happen to be at the right time in the right place are asked to participate (Fourie, 2004; Hague, Hague and Morgan, 2004). Participants in this study have been chosen from countries which are, as argued earlier, considered to be highly significant markets for UK universities (China, Malaysia, Pakistan, Nigeria, etc.), with 5 males and 3 females in the focus group and 6 males and 4 females in individual depth interviews, reflecting how often non-UK male students outnumber their female counterparts (HESA, 2008c). The sample size – the total number of respondents (observed and interviewed, individually or in the focus group) is more than 30, which is the rough number typically recruited for qualitative studies (Carson, Gilmore, Chad and Gronhaug, 2001; Smith and Flitcher, 2001). Despite being criticised as offering little chance to monitor biases (ranging from minimal to serious), convenience sampling is accessible, cheap, and time- and cost-effective, providing tools (when used with reasonable knowledge and care in carrying out research) to both undertake studies on topics that could not be approached via the utilisation of probability sampling (such as this dissertation’s) and gain an insight into obscure corners (which is also one of this study’s objectives) of research (Burns and Grove, 2004). Non-probability purposive sampling could have been utilised here; however, it causes a comparatively heavier bias (Burns and Bush, 2006; Webb, 2002).

Concerning data, it has first been decided to be analysed via grounded theory so as to prevent possible data misrepresentation because of forcing data to fit into moulds (Goulding, 2005; Jones, Kriflik and Zanko, 2005), which is the main criticism of the RATER scale (Hill, Roche and Allen, 2007) used in this study (and discussed at the end of its literature review). However, results obtained have been found to be easily fitted into and readily and reliably measured across the five standard dimensions of the RATER tool, which also “remains the most complete attempt to conceptualize and measure service quality”, as Nyeck, Morales, Ladhari, and Pons (2002, p. 102) conclude after examining 40 articles that have utilised this measuring instrument. Its merits outbalance any demerits that may exist, and the findings can be demonstrated in a way suitable for targeting particular service quality improvements – in this case improving academic service quality (O’Neill and Palmer, 2001). Grouping data into the 5 dimensions of the RATER scale will be done through manual thematic analysis. It is done manually because there is a possible risk, as Atherton and Elsmore (2007) notes, of bias and distortion in findings obtained via the use of computer-assisted qualitative data analysis software, which does not properly tackle social interaction or context-dependent meaning sets and has not yielded superior results (Dolan and Ayland, 2001), though software analysis takes “away the drudgery of handling qualitative data” (Lee and Esterhuizen, 2000, p. 237). Defining thematic analysis as “a method for identifying, analysing and reporting patterns (themes) within data” (p. 79), Braun and Clarke (2006) explain that a theme represents something significant about the data with respect to the research question, and symbolises some category of meaning or (repeated) patterned response within the data. They also describe doing thematic analysis manually by, for example, writing notes on the body of data you are interpreting, by utilising markers or highlighters to demarcate possible patterns, or by using yellow notes to define segments of data. One attribute mentioned by them and functioning as the main reason behind adopting thematic analysis in interpreting data regarding this study is that it can be a constructionist method, which explores the manners in which realities, events, experiences, meanings etc. are the products of a variety of discourses at work within society, therefore providing unanticipated insights. This paper follows closely their suggestions, for without clarity on how researchers go about analysing data (which, it is claimed, thematic analysis usually lacks), it is difficult to critically appraise their projects, compare/contrast it with other research in that area to sustain critique and it can hinder other inquirers conducting similar studies (Attride-Stirling, 2001). Avoiding the application of the ‘anything goes’ critique of qualitative research due to lack of concise and clear guidelines around thematic analysis (Antaki, Billig, Edwards and Potter, 2003)  to this study is also why mainly one reference (Braun and Clarke, 2006) is cited here in debating thematic analysis. It follows then that in this paper reliability (i.e., to what extent data can hold good over time – whether the results are replicable) can be determined by relating the results to the research problem, questions and inquiries to ascertain the degree of variation (Llusar and Zornoza, 2000) and validity (viz, whether the study actually measures that which it is meant to measure or how truthful the study’s findings are – whether measuring tools are accurate and really measuring what they are meant to measure) by posing a set of inquiries and often searching for the answers in the work of others (Joppe, 2006). However, it is argued that the roots of the concepts of validity and reliability are essentially positivistic and these concepts are regarded differently by qualitative researchers, some of whom even either ignoring them (together with issues such as generalisability and replicability) as irrelevant in qualitative research or replacing them with other concepts such as transferability, precision and credibility (Golafshani, 2003; Merriam, 2002; Seale, 2002). To yet enhance the quality of this study, triangulation is used. Creswell and Miller (2000, p. 126) define it in qualitative research as “a validity procedure where researchers search for convergence among multiple and different sources of information to form themes or categories in a study”. Patton (2001) supports the use of triangulation by saying it fosters research via combining several kinds of methods or data. However, the extra time consumed as opposed to single strategies and difficulties of handling the vast amount of data are some of triangulation’s drawbacks (Thurmond, 2001). This study triangulates several data sources (interviews, focus group, observation, etc.) and their interpretations (RATER scale, thematic analysis, cross-examining findings from qualitative methods and literature review, etc.) with multiple perceptions (of the international postgraduates) consistently (Healy and Perry, 2000; Wilson, 2006). Investigator triangulation could have been used as well, but hiring skilled researcher(s) would have been very expensive (Taylor, Kermode and Roberts, 2006) and against the university’s regulations regarding writing dissertations. As for ethics, all research will be conducted in compliance with the most recent Code of Conduct (a copy of which can be obtained from Market Research Society (MRS) website) issued by the MRS (2005) in UK, as the UK is the setting of this study and the researcher is a UK-educated student.

Limitations of methodology

Almost all research shall always be a matter of compromise (Papper, Holmes and Popovich, 2004) – usually a compromise between what, on the one hand, the researcher would ideally like to find and what, on the other hand, is possible to figure out within a range of real world constraints. In the case of this research the nature of the problem, the university’s regulations, the budget and timeframe are all very restrictive (as a context) so there is a boundary to what the researcher is able to know; otherwise, for example, several focus groups could have been run by moderator teams. Corollary to this belief is the fact that it is likely that the chosen methods (critically appraised using references since the year 2000) are not perfect but should achieve the aim and objectives within the time set.

Findings and Discussion

“The question is”, said Alice, “whether you can make words mean different things.”

“When I use a word”, said Humpty Dumpty, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less”

Lewis Carroll, 1832-1898, English Author

“In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained; that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference. We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking. I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience”

Henry Thoreau, 1817-1862, American transcendentalist

Unlike quantitative analysis, the qualitative one does not take place in a linear form (one part of the process overlaps another) and happens concurrently with data collection (Fade, 2004; Green and Thorogood, 2004). The findings of the qualitative methods used in this study will be critically related to the literature discussed in the literature review and presented in uncomplicated ways using simple terminology substantiated with quotations from the respondents; however, those ways have to be analytical and imaginative enough to see the links between the quotations, and the connections between the data as a whole (Draper, 2004; Rabiee, 2004). In addition, where deemed necessary, longer quotations (sometimes with the nationality of the respondent) are provided, to also minimise analysis ambiguity as words may have different meanings in different cultures (Gannon, 2001; Ferraro, 2002).


As argued in the literature review of this paper, higher education is more often than not marketed (and therefore perceived) as a means to an end, usually highlighting career outcomes, particularly in a time of recession (Moxley, Dumbrigue and Najor-Durack, 2001). “Higher education is career preparation. We may as well accept that as a fact” (Carlson and Fleisher, 2002, p. 1108). According to international postgraduate students covered in this study, a quick surfing of the UK universities’ websites would reveal a great deal of emphasis on enhancing employment prospects as one of the best fruits to be reaped from doing a degree. While findings in this study indicate a strong support from those students to that, different interpretations for how UK higher education institutions should carry out this promised service and establish industry links academically are obtained. A period of work placement (experience) as part of the degree programme, bringing guest speakers and reputation are the three key themes discerned form the results of this study. These themes interplay (e.g., bringing guest speakers enhances reputation and vice versa) and help tangibilise the higher education services meaningfully (and thus lessen the challenge that marketers and operators of services face because of the intangibility characteristic of services), for often attempts to tangibilise services, especially when the consumer’s viewpoint is not taken into consideration, are ill-planned, making service advantages more rather than less obscure (Mittal, 2002). For instance, according to student A, who has done his first MA at a different school, bringing guest speakers has the following advantages:

“When you graduate from the university and come to the market, you want to be more current. I have been to Y business school. The best thing I have heard about Y is not all about academics or books or what is shown on slides; you can do that alone. It is the more current relationship with the market. Every month they have seminars from people in business. Everybody at least once in a year goes to Y and delivers the most current lecture. So the student feels like I am part of the market and they will manage somehow to develop their brain up to that stage. Secondly, as my friend says, when we go back home we do not know where X [the current university] is, how good the environment is, how good the teachers are; all we want to know is where we stand in the world ranking. We go for Financial Times Ranking or we go for Times Higher Education online, we see the top business schools and we send our CVs to that institute. So that we will be making sure -it will be almost the same amount of money you are paying – that it will be more beneficial for us to come out of the institute and get the job – it is all about getting the job to be honest at the end of the day”.

Nonetheless, in order to gain the benefits of enhancing employability, universities need to make these guest speaker’s lectures known to the public, primarily via the use of media (Sargeant, 2005). Here is what student B has to add, who also has done his first MA at a different school:

“Let me focus a bit more on bringing guest lecturers. By bringing some more in-business people inside the business school or into the university, this brings us more into the media, expose us more to the media. The more we are exposed to the media, the more business people are going to know about our business school. And then, they can think of- like, ok, we know this business school, they have been doing a debate on these things. And at least they might have heard about it. At least in the newspaper somewhere, it is a small column there, ok, that person has visited this place. And that can help us grow as a name-wise. I still remember when I came here in 2004, Z was not there in the top 100 schools. Now Z stands in 16th in the world. So what they have done; what I believe they had done- there must be something else they have done in the back, but what I feel they have done is that they opened it up more, more to the people. Let more guest speakers come in, let more executives come in to the school. They know more about your school. So when you go to their firm next time, they might recognize your business school”.

Findings further suggest that even if the university is ‘really good’ but not known, it still needs to work on its reputation (Scott, 2004), as testified to this perspective by student C:

“Now that I am in X, I think X is a really good school. At least I know that the business school is good. But before I got to X, X to me was unknown. The first time I heard of X was at the agent. I just knew I want to have a Masters in marketing in UK, but I had not decided what school, and then X came up because not all schools have their courses in February and the agent told me about X. It was at that point that I started looking into X and find out do I really want to go there. So basically I think X is…there is still a lot to be done in the sense of bringing up X, letting X be known because as I said before that I have no idea, I have never heard the name”. This also shows how offering February entry courses not only helps students start looking for jobs earlier (as opposed to waiting till September to start one’s studies), but also helps the university deal with the perishability of services (e.g., empty seats) and fluctuating demand on them (Cant and van Heerden, 2004).

However, working on the institution’s image and reputation is not only useful for attracting prospective students, whose decision is usually affected by the position of the university in any league tables which in return affects the university’s brand image (Palacio, Meneses and PerezPerez, 2002), but is also (and more so for international students as the findings of this study show) critical in ultimate employability (Thakur, 2007). In student D’s opinion,

“When you take your CV to an employer, the first thing they look at is where your business school stands, because those executives do not have much time to go into the courses and see how much you have done in the course and how good your marks are and so on. They always look for – “Ok, you are from LBS, you are from LSE, you are from Oxford, you are from Cambridge… alright, come for an interview””.


In addition, findings suggest that lecturers should use their knowledge and ability to inspire confidence and trust and therefore strengthen students’ employment prospects. One way of doing so is through diversity of assessment with presentations, with the aim of improving skills. After all, skills – be they managerial, interpersonal, numerical, related to communication, etc. – is what employability is all about (Booth, 2003). Yet how should lecturers use their knowledge so that students develop these skills? While studies (mainly on undergraduates) cited earlier in the literature review show that, generally speaking, Asian students, who form the largest share of international students studying in UK, usually prefer teacher-centred approaches (Chin, Bauer and Chang, 2000), many Asian postgraduates in this study have exhibited eager willingness to incur the responsibility of their learning by themselves, as represented by the following excerpt form student E:

“We come to a business school and we are going to be a part of any big multi-international organization. That is what we believe when we come to a school. So we should take it- I have taken it like, a part from the course- see the course is there, everybody is going to get marks. You got the materials everywhere on the internet. You just type it in Google, Wikipedia, etc. it brings you everything in. Second when you graduate, just do remember one thing in mind: that you, almost after a near time, you will be a part of a big organization, nobody will come out and tell you what you are going to do and how you are going to do it. You have to take it today, better than take it tomorrow. Tomorrow you will be suffering in a big organization. If you start doing it today, it is alright”.

Even when the lecturer’s knowledge is sought (rather than their ability to help students develop skills), students still need to put the effort to obtain that. Student F states some other reasons for that:

“You see even from back home and even from my organization where I worked you always want to do one thing: you got to bring yourself out of. What makes you different in a class of 45 that you are going to come out with? What makes you different with your CV in the market? What makes you different? How can you say that it is me, not him? What makes you different? That is how I approach everything in my life. That is how I deal with my teachers as well: I am different; I want to go ahead, please help me out. I am willing to take me to any path you want me to be. I want to be the different one. So that is how the teacher takes me: that he is here to learn something, that he is eager to have something … Ok, teachers have got 8 lectures to deliver in a day; every class is different, 45 people in each class, how can he remember you? Bring yourself out; go to the teachers, a lot a lot, he will not give you his time that easy; he is a lecturer, he is a PhD, you are nothing: go to him, go to him, go to him!”

The same still stands when it comes to African postgraduates in this study, despite huge differences in the educational systems:

“Basically, coming from back in Nigeria, basically our standard of education is not as high as this. But I believe coming here was like a totally different- I have not had submitted any coursework in yet. But I have been working on it. It is like a totally different experience. I come from a background where it is just about exams, you know, you read, you cram, you write it down and all that. And then I come into this environment where it is all about, you know, reading and then writing up the coursework. And I know I have basically no idea how to go about it. So I have to help myself, like, there is a lot of sessions in the school, like the education drop-in centre, where you can go for seminars, academic stuff, etc. You know basically it is all there. I think it is all about you as a student now deciding that you want to help yourself, you are here, you want to do good, you want to do well on your course and then actually going out there, because there is a lot of people who are going to definitely put in- because lecturers cannot do it all. That is how I look at it. Maybe because I am coming form, you know, as low as you can get to, you know, something of this. It all depends on our past experiences, but I just believe that lecturers cannot do it all. As a student you have to take a step. And if you look at X as a whole, all these things have been put in place. It is just for you to actually stand up by yourself and go there and help yourself out”.

The linguistic barrier should also be dealt with by students, as a Spanish student responds when asked how the university can help him in that issue:

“In my case, for example, I suffered a bit when I started here because I do not understand some dialects here. I used to listen to the BBC language, so at the start I suffered a bit. I could not understand what the teachers are saying. I think it is an individual problem. I had to improve my communication with people. That is one of the most important things when I came here: it is to improve also my language. So I think the only treatment for these issues is time”.

Finally, even where there are university facilities to improve these skills (e.g., language centres), attendance at these should not be compulsory. A Chinese student explains,

“I think that, since X is a university of local students and international students, I think that is a tough choice, because if the services are provided, local students might not need it, but some of them might want it. And I think that is the most difficult thing to determine”.

Thus, findings demonstrate that non-UK postgraduates (unlike their undergraduate counterparts surveyed in studies quoted in the literature review) show greater awareness of their responsibility to develop some major cultural global skills in order to be successful in the current global work environment (Cant, 2004). Such awareness, it could be argued, is the main reason behind the increase in searching for higher education around the world (Enders, 2004; Teichler, 2004).


As said at the beginning, a period of work placement (experience) as part of the degree programme is highly useful from the international postgraduates’ perspective: “About work placement, I think it provides the students with at least an idea of what the real world situation is about. You know, you have an idea of how these theories are applied and tangibilised in real industry”. It can be inferred from student’s F opinion that work placements also help tangibilise the higher education service meaningfully, which is, as stated in the literature review, one of the main challenges facing higher education marketing. However, a recent report by Little and Harvey (2006) concludes that although students appreciate the tangible benefits of work placements (designed as part of the curriculum), the increasingly non-mandatory nature of placements results in the decreasing number of students choosing to experience a work placement (even though they might have demanded it in the first instance, for it is not uncommon that students ask for something and then don’t opt for it after it is prepared for them). Therefore, Fry, Ketteridge and Marshall (2003) suggest that in order for work placements to be meaningful and taken seriously by students, they should be credit-bearing and embedded and partnerships should be established between the employers (who have to be selected carefully) and the university. Further, there should be tangible output that can be evaluated (Murray and Wallace, 2000).

In addition, the curriculum content should contain a practical part as well as actionable, up-to-date knowledge:

“Can I say something about the course content? When I was doing the research course, the one thing I realized is that the only thing that was missing is that the teacher was not actually emphasizing too much on the quantitative research. And we were taught the qualitative research as well, as an approach, but we were not taught how to decode and encode, these kind of things – how to conduct a focus group interview. So we were having all the knowledge from the book, but we were not having any practical implications. That is number one. And another one is that, we were not having any sort of presentations in all the modules to improve our, say, debating skills”.

It is the practicality of complex curriculum that will transform students into a doing state to inquire into new territories, even when failure is a possible option (Emiliani, 2006). This practicing-the-knowledge mode will add to conceptualization a better dimension of operationalisation when it comes to concrete actions which will be of great value to students when they recall them in real work environments. To burgeon the opportunities of exploitation and ameliorate the uptake, scientific knowledge and research should be successfully materialised into the terms and body of reference of the professional (Mohrman, 2001). This approach is what student G would depict as “deserting the text . . . only to embrace the context”. However, as appeared to be agreed upon by this study’s postgraduates, tangibility is not achieved only via the content of the course; it is the usable knowledge obtained that “will effectively pave the career path ahead of us” and equip learners with “skills to utilise should the need arises”. In providing the appropriate environment for this kind of meta-knowledge, the overall impression is that the university is “proceeding along the right lines” particularly with the “constant evaluation of course content in light of industry demands”. Students are primarily worried about the transferability of knowledge gained in classrooms to the work context, and such factors as the relation of the course content to what employers want and skills relevant to IT, basic knowledge, team working and communication combined improve the overall perception of the academic aspect of service quality in higher education (Teo and Williams, 2005).

With this in mind, lecturers will have to maintain a keen eye on cutting-edge research and knowledge, technological advancements and industry needs to strike a much-needed balance between theory and practice in the design and implementation of curriculum. Student H comments on this by saying, “What I find is I do realize that the reputation in some specific area, the lecturers are very experienced. And they have practical jobs. Some of them have done a certain career and then moved into lecturing. They are very experienced and they have some connections”. Moreover, from learner I’s viewpoint, the chance to pursue specialised research in high-priority areas is a shape of tangibility derived from the curricula: “I recall benefiting more of particular notions when I conduct my real market research proposal in the second module entitled Contemporary Approaches in Marketing Research. It was at that point that I became interested in marketing research and not when I was theoretically lectured on it. I envision my present curriculum as a first step to more interesting proposals to come when I move to the job market”. In the aforementioned instance, applied research, which is a form of tangible knowledge (Trader, 2007), can be exhibited in real and examinable shapes. Further refinement for this higher level of tangibility to assume a better status would necessitate that lecturers keep abreast of the latest advances and be armed with the key skills to mentor learners and strengthen their actionable knowledge in specialised areas. As a consequence, the connecting chains between current knowledge, lecturers’ expertise, the quality of teaching, learning and assessment experiences, enhancing students’ employability and tangibilising the higher education service (and thus making its marketing easier) are a continuous preparedness to unlearn and relearn (Douglas et al., 2006). However, this series of chains begins with the expertise in both the theory and practice of lecturers, which is the main requirement to the proper materialisation of the learning experience in and out the classroom confines for students. By the same token, the accomplishment of such materialisation successfully starts with the key use of lecturers’ main skills in translating complicated notions into layperson’s terms in relation to the present work context. As such, expertise demands an ongoing process of updating skills and knowledge, especially market-related ones.


The kind of impressions learners are left with shapes to a great extent the affective relationship between students and lecturers. Findings in general demonstrate that there is a dire need for lecturers to be customer-driven, specifically by applying a human perspective to their interaction with learners. This aids the university’s ability to pay an individualised and caring attention to students (Aghamolaei and Zare, 2008). After all, as debated in the literature review students are customers, it is customers who define what quality is and “knowing only this much is sufficient to make many educators very wary of anything to do with Deming [founder of total quality management], especially those educators who are primarily concerned with the human dimension of schooling” (Owens, 2001, p. 219). With respect to this study’s respondents, the empathetic stance of lecturers has resulted in better outcomes much noted by students. Student J relates,

“I think that will help a lot, because basically- Ok, I have had the opportunity in developing themes in marketing, and where they gave us the option of coming in to discuss our assignment with her. And knowing it was the first time I am going to submit this, I have actually tried to put up and introduction together before we meet her, and by time I went to see her, she pointed me in the right direction which if that opportunity was not available, I would just have gone thinking I was doing a perfect thing and then I would submit and then I will be disappointed with my scores eventually. But having that opportunity to meet with the lecturer, and then lecturer actually takes your work and tells you: ok, this is a good work, you need to focus more on this …”. Student K interrupts to agree and give another example,

“I have been so fortunate, as I said, that my teacher is giving me a month time to complete my assignment. And he said whoever has done it earlier, just send me an email, I will check it and I will send it back with the mistakes that you have done, marking them out. Or you can come to my office, take an appointment and I can discuss- I think it is better than doing it in a class, that you will be discussing your assignment personally with your teacher. They said that if you have done your assignment earlier, rather than sending it like one minute before the deadline. That is what they have done with me. So in my course teachers all over are already doing these things, that if you have done it earlier, you can bring it to me and I can sort things out before you submit it finally to me.”

Such a likeable culture necessitates an essential consent of all lecturers to adapt and re-adapt their beliefs, values and attitudes; these adaptations are the most significant and arguably the hardest to make (Koslowski, 2006). Indeed, such empathy, if adopted as a sustained principle and utilised (particularly when it serves what matters most for students – in this study employability), even though it may demand from lecturers more than what they have to do ‘formally’, might lead to positive critical incidents (or, as referred to it in the literature review, ‘critically critical’ incidents) that would result in an unexpected change in customer’s loyalty behaviour. An illustration of this is what happened with student L, who left his reputable school to join a ‘less reputable’ one because the latter’s staff are more helpful and pay more individualised attention:

“I am so glad that Dr. W is my course leader. I am going to represent X School in a seminar from the 1st to the 3rd of this month in the CFA. Nobody came and say build a better relationship with that big American institute but I did it myself. I contacted Dr W in the morning and she backed my up and I am so glad of the way she appreciated my effort. Although it was my personal thing, when I went to my doctor, she was really cooperating with me. I do want to mention that most of the teachers I come across are really supportive. I have done my first Master in L. When I was in L, as a big name, a brand name, they do not care about you as an individual, what do you want to learn, and how you are going to survive in the market when you go out there, they just give you a brand name you just put in a CV. No matter how many Ds you got; how many Es you got: you just have to mention that L is there and you are going to get the job, but you might something later on. The brand name is there, but the essential ingredient of being a business school, I think X school is really good because of the way they really backed me up, although I have been here only for 3 months”.

Yet the type of empathy sought here by students is one which enables the lecturer to identify with them while at the same time maintaining a proper distance between herself/himself and the students (Robinson, 2005). According to this paper’s samples, what is required here is not a form of pity; instead, together with improving the learning experience, a simulation of how to apply an important attribute sought by employers (especially services firms) in a real work context. That distance is mandatory if the customer (in this case students) is to be comprehended, and if the provider (here the lecturer) is to deliver services effectively and impartially (Robinson, 2001). By experiencing that, students will develop this important attribute and its related skills which are global but can only in practice be learned (Gaita, 2000) and therefore by experiencing empathy students will enhance their learning experience and, eventually, employability.

It should be noted however that evaluation of service quality should be coalesced rather than dismembered, for as some scholars cited in the literature review have argued, perceived service quality stem from how well the overall real service performance fulfils the consumer’s expectations. This premise is the cornerstone of SERVQUAL; that a proper evaluation starts with the closing of the discrepancies between perceptions and expectations. Thus findings allude to some positive perceptions of service quality in higher education; nevertheless, these perceptions should be assesses on a continuous basis to prevent a status of familiarity saturation by means of which ongoing improvement can be hindered (Smith et al., 2007).


Disposition towards helping consumers and providing prompt service is hold in high esteem by participants in this study. Indeed, it can be argued, as evidenced in the literature review, that this disposition is a must as customers cannot separate service quality perceptions form service interaction, for higher education is a pure service in which personal contact plays a crucial role (Voss and Gruber, 2006). Students M notes, “I think the relationship between lecturers and students is very very important. Communication is very important to understand what the lecturers are trying to say to the students. I do not say that X has been excellent in this aspect”. Findings further demonstrate that willingness to help should be present in treating students (as opposed to processing their requests mechanically).  To achieve that level, though, the key issue for all lecturers is to consider the educational process as an organism where quality is perceived from the students’ ongoing renewal and growth, instead of a machine where the main concern is to fix faulty pieces. Student N’s previous experience while doing his first master exemplifies this,

“I have been in a big business school, and in a big school, they do not really listen to you. They do not care if you pass or not, if your English is good or not, if you submitted your assignment or not. They will come in a class, deliver the lecture, no matter you carry or not. I am not talking about L, which ranks as a top school (in the seventies out of the first 100 schools worldwide). The teacher just comes in, he is a doctor, he has done double PhDs in marketing and research and analysis. He comes in a class, delivers something, shows us some paragraphs and charts; you do not have a time to ask him anything at all. And by the time he will be leaving, he will let you know about the assignment: OK you have got to submit it by that date, you submit it or not, they do not care. They do not want you to get to that stage. Here I found it slightly different, because all my teachers are really cooperating with me and they want me to develop myself from computer science to business sciences I am going to and they want me to develop up to that level so that I can survive”. However, students’ participation in the co-creation of services is highly important as well, and should be, as argued in the literature review, clarified from the very beginning and managed well (Telford and Masson, 2005). Thus, knowledge (as early as possible) of duties and rights on the parts of both students and lecturers entails effective management of expectations and would result in successful participation in the co-creation of services (Lengnick-Hall, Claycomb and Inks, 2000; Rodie and Kleine, 2000), for participation (collaboration) is a prerequisite in higher education, from discussing ideas in class to writing up dissertations, and is heavily stressed in almost all models developed for quality in higher education (Srikanthan and Dalrymple, 2002).

Willingness to help customers stems also from respondents’ view that they should be treated as customers; not students, despite concerns voiced by some scholars previewed in the literature review. Those who opt for which services to use and spend their money are not satisfied anymore merely to be the passive consumers of just any type of services offered (Wright and Ngan, 2004). As expressed by student O:

“I have struggled a lot to get in here to this point, to paying almost that massive amount which is a lot from back home. If somebody is sending you from back home, it is really a lot money. I want every penny offered to be worth”. This also has to do with exercising choices as a payer for them and the belief that as a customer one gets what a student would get but not vice versa. Student P comments:

“I should get value for my money. There are other universities in the UK, and the other universities which probably charge less, and I chose the university of X, so I should get value for my money. So basically as a customer, definitely I am a student, but you are supposed to give me in part everything I want- knowledge, everything. So I would like to be treated as a customer”. In addition, as discussed earlier in the literature view, overseas students are more sensitive to quality issues than their UK peers essentially because they pay more tuition fees. Upon this student Q agrees:

“I will say that because we are paying the full fees. Even in banking industry, if you are saving a lot of money in the bank, like compared to others, you are a VIP. I think this is fair. But still, on a consumer’s side, if I am paying more, I am expecting more”.

As for providing prompt services, this is mostly important in communication, such as answering emailed inquires regarding assignments and timetabling. As discussed in literature review, technology (such as emailing) can lessen the negative effects of the inseparability characteristic of services, but it may also lead to a higher level of expectation, for instance regarding promptness of responses. Being accustomed to an environment where communication conveys clear and accurate messages and is done in a timely fashion sharpens students’ communication skills, which are the number one skill (86% of) employers are looking for yet dissatisfied with (Archer and Davison, 2008). Not providing precise and timely response might result in negative critical incidents. Student R observes that,

“back to the really basic fact of communicating with students, I have some experience and I heard some students talking about similar things to what I heard, like timetable changing in my course. And one of my classmates from Germany had an internship with a company in Germany and then she was planning to go back to Germany. She emailed the department earlier to inquire about the exact timetable, but got a late response stating that the timetable of the course changed. And she has to study in here for an extra period of time. And then she has to delay her internship, which was really a good opportunity”.

Limitations of Findings and Discussion

As the research methods used in this paper are qualitative, the aforementioned findings and their discussion here are not meant to be generalisable and are mainly tentative in nature (Meuter, Ostrom, Roundtree and Bitner, 2000). The results, nevertheless, help gain a first valuable insight into the aim set; i.e., critical factors which affect the academic aspect of service quality in higher education as perceived by non-UK customers studying postgraduate programmes in the UK.

Conclusions, Recommendations and Future Research

“The purest treasure mortal times can afford is a spotless reputation”

William Shakespeare, 1564-1616, English dramatist

“If all the economists were laid end to end, they’d never reach a conclusion”

George Bernard Shaw, 1856-1950, Irish playwright

This paper has sought to explore critical factors which affect the academic aspect of service quality in higher education as perceived by non-UK customers studying postgraduate programmes in the UK. The main critical factors have been found to be those which would enhance students’ employability:

  • A period of work placement (experience) as part of the degree programme;
  • bringing guest speakers (and media coverage for that);
  • reputation;
  • lecturers’ use of their knowledge and ability to inspire confidence and trust;
  • practical, actionable and up-to-date curriculum;
  • global, work-related skills (especially communication) obtained; and
  • expertise, friendliness and approachability of lecturers

Thus, the implication for university managers is to further adapt the academic aspect so as to create an environment which would simulate a real work context, in order to ultimately enhance students’ employments prospects. This thesis’s author concurs with Knight (2003, p. 3), the head of Enhancing Student Employability Co-ordination Team (ESECT), and his colleagues that “good learning, teaching and assessment projects will, in the nature of things, be developing practices that are also likely to help students make good, well-founded claims to employability”. It might be difficult to create such an environment, yet if done, resources can be wisely allocated and improved and the best students can be attracted and retained.

It ought to be mentioned that this paper is limited to non-UK taught postgraduates in a business school in a UK university. While this dissertation provides a valuable insight, further research is needed. Given their burgeoning but often underestimated significance, future research can particularly address postgraduate students doing various courses within different universities across many countries to ascertain whether a consistency exists regarding the choice of critical factors affecting the academic aspect (and others) of service quality perceptions.

Finally, for those who doubt the feasibility of spending on such research or the number of (good) students who can be attracted in the financial crisis the world nowadays witnesses, it is perhaps useful to recall Tieman’s (2009, p. 1) observation in a Financial Times article entitled ‘Downturn triggers upsurge in students switching on’:

“When the going gets tough, the tough start learning. It is commonplace that applications for … courses tick up during downturns”.

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Appendix 1: Focus group’s questions

After insuring the researcher’s firm adherence to the UK market research society’s code of conduct, respondents are informed of the following definitions to clarify the set agenda of the research:

  1.   The academic aspect of service quality:

may include:

Skilled and engaging teachers

Knowledge, expertise, approachability, friendliness, etc. of lecturers

Practical skills taught

Regular access to teaching staff

Variety of library books and journals

Easily transferable skills

Reputable degree programme

Contents of the course

Availability of the desired course

but may not include:


tuition fees


  1. Desired service level: the level of service representing what customers believe can and should be provided, i.e. a “realistically ideal” level of service.
  1. Adequate service level: the minimum level of service customers are willing to accept.


  1. What is your most important academic aspect of service quality in higher education? Why? Why not?
  1. Compared with your minimum service level, the university’s performance is (a) lower, (b) same or (c) higher? Why? Why not?
  1. Compared with your desired service level, the university’s performance is (a) lower, (b) same or (c) higher? Why? Why not?
  1. In light of the academic aspect, would you like the university to view and therefore treat you as a customer or as a student? Why? Why not?

Thank you very much!


Appendix 2: individual depth interviewing questions

General Background


Q1       Age range.

Q2       Sex (female, male).

Q3       Course (MBA, MSc Social Research, etc.).

Q4       Mode of study (full time or part time).

Q5       Nationality (British, American, Egyptian, etc.).

Academic Service Attribute


Q6       For you, what is the most important academic aspect of service quality in higher

education?(for example, courses and lecturers; but not, say, accommodation)

Q7       Why?


Q8       Before starting your course, how did you expect the university’s performance would be in that aspect?

Q9       Why?


Q10     How do you think the university’s performance has actually been in that aspect?

Q11     Why?

Evaluation / Outcome/Suggestions

Q12     What do you personally suggest to improve that academic aspect?

Q13     How?

Setting the Agenda

Q14     In light of the academic aspect, would you like the university to view and therefore treat you as a customer or as a student?

Q15     Why?

Thank you very much!







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