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Service Quality in Higher Education: The students’ viewpoint

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Service Quality in Higher Education: The students’ viewpoint

  1. 1. UNIVERSITY OF MANCHESTER MANCHESTER BUSINESS SCHOOL Service Quality in Higher Education: The students’ viewpoint A dissertation submitted to the University of Manchester for the degree of Bachelor of Science in the Faculty of Humanities May 2012 DANIEL JAKE BEAUMONT BSc (Honours) in Management 7408488 Supervisor: Dr Anna Goatman
  2. 2. 2 Statement of Originality This dissertation is my own original work and has not been submitted for any assessment or award at the University of Manchester or any other university. Acknowledgements I would like to thank Dr. Anna Goatman for her invaluable input and phenomenal support throughout the process of completing this dissertation. ii
  3. 3. 3 Abstract In light of the imminent rise in tuition fees, university funding cuts and fears of declining student numbers, gaining a sustainable competitive advantage in the higher education sector is at the forefront of many universities’ agendas. In what can be categorised as an extremely intangible service sector, one way that a university can differentiate their service offering from the competition is through the provision of excellent service quality. This study investigates perceptions of service quality at the University of Manchester, collecting viewpoints from Undergraduate students from different academic year groups. The research was gathered through the use of focus groups as the primary data collection method, incorporating both quantitative and qualitative techniques to triangulate the methodology and increase the credibility of findings. By using Importance-Performance Analysis to examine the data, the findings indicate that perceptions of different service quality characteristics are complex, varying in terms of importance and performance, whilst also displaying disparity between different academic year groups. Despite this, a set of ‘core’ characteristics has been uncovered, which all students deemed important to their university experience, regardless of which academic year group they were part of. This study provides university service management with a ‘snapshot’ of the current provision of service quality at the University of Manchester. It also offers suggestions that could be implemented to improve service quality, given the limited resources available to management. Due to the dynamic nature of service quality, it is essential to conduct further research to build on this study, in order to ensure that the university remains competitive in what is an increasingly turbulent environment. iii
  4. 4. 4 Contents 1. Introduction 8 1.1 The UK Higher Education Sector 8 1.2 The Higher Education Sector and Service Quality 12 1.3 The University of Manchester 12 1.4 Study Structure 13 2. Literature Review 15 2.1 Introduction 15 2.2 The Nature of Services 15 2.3 The Construct of Service Quality 21 2.4 Measuring Service Quality 27 2.5 Chapter Summary 37 3. Research Objectives and Questions 38 4. Methodology 39 4.1 Introduction 39 4.2 Methodological Stance 39 4.3 Rationalising the Methodological Approach 42 4.4 The Research Process: Focus Groups 43 4.5 Data Analysis Techniques 47 4.6 Ethical Considerations 48 4.7 Chapter Summary 49 5. Discussion 50 5.1 Introduction 50 5.2 The Importance and Performance of Service Quality Characteristics 50 5.3 Importance-Performance Analysis and Problematic Areas 60 5.4 Differences between Students’ Perceptions of Service Quality 70 iv
  5. 5. 5 5.5 Suggestions for University Service Management 76 5.6 Chapter Summary 84 6. Conclusion 85 6.1 Introduction 85 6.2 Conclusions Pertaining to Research Questions 85 6.3 Limitations of Study 88 6.4 Future Research Opportunities 89 7. Appendices 91 8. References 111 v
  6. 6. 6 List of Figures Figure 2.1. The Disconfirmation Model 25 Figure 2.2. The Perceived Service Quality Model 29 Figure 2.3. The SERVQUAL Model 30 Figure 2.4. Determinants of Perceived Service Quality 31 Figure 5.1. Importance-Performance Matrix – Year 1 61 Figure 5.2. Importance-Performance Matrix – Year 2 62 Figure 5.3. Importance-Performance Matrix – Year 3 63 List of Tables Table 1.1. Total Number of Students in Higher Education 11 Table 1.2. Total University Student Applicants 11 Table 5.1. Most Important Characteristics in Each Academic Year Group 52 Table 5.2. Best Performing Characteristics in Each Academic Year Group 57 Table 5.3. Areas to Maintain 64 Table 5.4. Problematic Areas 65 Table 5.5. Notable Patterns Across Different Academic Year Groups 72 Table 5.6. Problematic Areas Located from IPA 79 vi
  7. 7. 7 List of Appendices Appendix A: The SERVQUAL Instrument 91 Appendix B: Variables and Dimensions for the HEdPERF Scale 93 Appendix C: Sample End of Unit Questionnaire 94 Appendix D: National Student Survey Questionnaire 96 Appendix E: Focus Group Details & Participant Demographics 98 Appendix F: Example Focus Group Survey 99 Appendix G: Importance-Performance Data - Year 1, 2 & 3 101 Appendix H: Importance-Performance Analysis Matrix Key 104 Appendix I: Individual Participant Ratings from Focus Groups 105 vii
  8. 8. 8 1. Introduction The service sector has grown considerably since the 1970s and services are now playing an increasingly important role in the economy of many nations (Abdullah, 2006a). In conjunction to this trend, the construct of service quality has become an extremely topical issue within the services literature (Baron et al., 2009). The provision of good service quality is commonly associated with increased profitability, customer satisfaction, customer loyalty, customer retention, customer attraction and positive word of mouth (Abdullah, 2006a; Nadiri et al., 2009; Voss et al., 2007). In consideration of these apparent relationships, it is no surprise that there is great interest in the measurement of service quality (Abdullah, 2006a). Despite the realisation of its importance, many researchers have found it difficult to properly define and measure service quality (Giese and Cote, 2000; Parasuraman et al., 1998) due to the unique characteristics of services, specifically, intangibility, inseparability, perishability and lack of ownership (Zeithaml et al., 1985). Given the evident interest in service quality, its potential benefits and issues associated with its measurement, the purpose of this study is to investigate perceptions of service quality at the University of Manchester from the point of view of the student. The first chapter begins by reviewing the current UK higher education sector, focusing specifically on the role that service quality plays in universities. Next, the background of the study is introduced and the chapter concludes by providing an overview of the structure of the study. 1.1 The UK Higher Education Sector The UK is regarded as one of the leading providers of higher education, housing some of the best universities in the world. According to Times Higher Education World University Rankings (2012), three of the top fifteen universities are based in the UK, while the remaining twelve are of US and Japanese origin. In Europe, five of the top seven universities are UK based, while the remaining two are located in Sweden and Switzerland. On a domestic level, there is evidence to suggest that the competitive marketplace for higher education is increasing. As of August 2011, there were 129 universities in operation throughout the UK, compared to only 109 in 2001 (Department for Education, 2011). This translates to a percentage increase of approximately 15.50% for the last decade.
  9. 9. 9 Labelled as the sector that has experienced the highest number of changes over the last two decades (Key Note, 2011), the higher education sector has been at the forefront of intense changes. The sector is experiencing constant readjustment and has been subject to several major reforms, largely pertaining to political, social and economic factors. On the back of the formation of the coalition government, alongside the economic recession, the higher education sector is facing the risk of students becoming disenfranchised from education as the cost of tuition is set to rise, as well as issues relating to reductions in the funding that institutions receive from the government. 1.1.1 Tuition Fees Historically, university experience came at no direct financial cost to students studying in the UK. However, in 1998 the government decided to introduce tuition fees for the first time, capping them at £1,000 to aid the growth and competitive position of universities (Department for Education, 2000). In response to the Higher Education Act 2004, fees were increased to £3,000 a year in 2006. From then onwards, fees have climbed slowly in line with inflation up to £3,375 for 2011/2012 (Direct Gov, 2012a). However, the Browne Review (2010), commissioned in late 2009 and published in 2010, suggested that the cap on tuition fees should be lifted and that universities should have the ability to increase their fees. In December 2010, 323 MP’s voted in favour of an increase in tuition fees, while 302 rejected the increase (Key Note, 2011). Accordingly, the coalition government decided against lifting the cap on fees but instead revealed their intention to increase tuition fees, removing the standardised cost of university for the first time. As of September 2012, universities have the freedom to charge £6,000, and in some circumstances £9,000, providing the institution can offer sufficient financial support to students from poorer backgrounds (Direct Gov, 2012b). With universities experiencing the brunt of the economic crisis and facing significant cuts in their funding, it is no surprise that many are attempting to offset these cuts by charging the maximum £9,000 per year of study. According to the Guardian (2011), more than a third (i.e. 47 universities) will charge the full rate of £9,000 for the first time in September 2012, and it is anticipated that many more will increase to the full rate in the near future. With fears of excess of £40,000 debt on graduation from university, students have reacted furiously with numerous protests through Westminster, though these seem to have been unsuccessful with regard to changing government policy
  10. 10. 10 (Key Note, 2011). Although the higher education sector is fairly robust and it is anticipated that there is always going to be demand for education, there have been fears that higher fees may prevent students from studying in the UK, making higher education unobtainable for many young people who wish to go to university (Key Note, 2011). Accordingly, many students may cross international borders in an attempt to seek lower fees, thus reducing the competitive position of UK universities in the marketplace. Worryingly, it is forecasted that the number of students will fall from 2.7 million in 2011/2012 to 2.6 million in 2012/2013, and continue to decline year-on-year to 2015/2016 (Key Note, 2011). 1.1.2 University Funding Cuts In addition to rising student fees and the economic downturn, the coalition government have also decided to cut university funding for 2011/2012 and beyond. Key Note (2011) point out that universities traditionally receive funding from a range of organisations, including Higher Education Funding Councils (e.g. Higher Education Funding Council for England) and Research Councils (e.g. Economic and Social Research Council). Nevertheless, a total of £940m cuts have been made for 2011/2012 in comparison to the previous year. The largest cuts hit the teaching budget, which is forecast to lose £342m by July 2012, while the research budget is set to fall by £45m (HEFCE, 2011). This has led to worries that UK universities, especially those less established, could find it difficult to fund some of the most important research in the world, potentially jeopardising their reputation and competitive position in the marketplace. Moreover, it is believed that government cuts in the higher education sector are causing customer loyalty, satisfaction, retention, attraction and service quality to become increasingly important issues, which can all contribute in alleviating funding concerns. Therefore, in the face of various funding cuts and intense global competition, higher education institutions are shifting their focus to market-orientated mechanisms like many other service industries (DeShields et al., 2005). 1.1.3 Student Numbers Despite the surge in tuition fees in 2006, university student numbers have increased steadily year-on-year by approximately 12.4% between 2006 and 2011 (Department
  11. 11. 11 for Education, 2011). 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 Number of Students 2,281.2 2,304.7 2,306.1 2,396.1 2,493.4 2,605 Diff (+/-) - 23.5 1.4 90 97.3 111.6 % Change Year-on- year - 1.0 0.1 3.9 4.1 4.5 Table 1.1: Total Number of Students in Higher Education in the UK 2006 - 2011 (000s) Source: Department for Education (2011) Table 1.1 demonstrates that the greatest growth was experienced between 2009 and 2011, increasingly steadily and growing by 4.2% on average. Similarly, figures from UCAS (2012) show that student university applications have experienced an average percentage increase of 30% between 2007 and 2011 (Table 1.2). However, examination of total applicants between 2011 and 2012 illustrates that applications have decreased by 7.4%. It is believed that the root cause of this is students’ reaction to the increase in tuition fees, which will be introduced in September 2012 (Guardian, 2012). 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 Total Applicants 402,831 435,658 464,167 555,439 583,546 540,07 3 Diff (+/-) - 32,827 28,509 91,272 28,107 43,473 % Change Year-on- year - 8.1 6.5 19.7 4.8 -7.4 Table 1.2: Total University Student Applicants 2007-2012 as of January Each Year Source: UCAS (2012) In recognition of these figures, it is predicted that the higher education sector will continue to experience small declines year-on-year in student numbers by as much as 2.9% (Key Note, 2011). This makes attracting students extremely important for university management. After all, customer attraction is crucial for institutions and it is no surprise that the recruitment of students is a major priority for many universities due to the desire to increase the student population in line with the government targets (Sultan and Wong, 2010).
  12. 12. 12 1.2 The Higher Education Sector and Service Quality Currently, the literature pertaining to service quality in the higher education sector is significantly undeveloped. Traditionally, many researchers have focused their efforts on commercial services (Sultan and Wong, 2010). However, it is increasingly apparent that institutions operating in the higher education sector, previously not regarded as “profit-making organisations,” are attempting to gain a competitive advantage over their competition (Oldfield and Baron, 2000). As a result, universities must consider themselves as a “profit-making organisation” that is operating in a competitive marketplace (Oldfield and Baron, 2000). In light of the current economic climate, funding cuts and potential future decreases in student numbers, universities must realise that they are business entities, competing for resources and students, both in the local and international market (Paswan and Ganesh, 2009). This means that universities should be continually looking for appropriate ways of gaining a competitive advantage. Accordingly, the higher education sector must strive to deliver a high quality of service and satisfy its students, who some may term ‘participating customers’, to achieve sustainability in a competitive service environment (DeShields et aI., 2005). After all, universities can only be successful as long as their students are being offered something that they wish to buy, at a quality they feel is acceptable (Brown and Mazzarol, 2009). This demonstrates the importance of service quality in gaining a competitive advantage, whilst also highlighting the need to better understand the role that service quality plays in the higher education sector. 1.3 The University of Manchester The study is based upon the University of Manchester, which is a well-established higher education institution. The university’s origin dates back to the formation of the Manchester Mechanics’ Institute in 1824. In October 2004, the University of Manchester was formed when the Victoria University of Manchester (founded in 1851) merged with UMIST (University of Manchester, 2012a). The university is the most popular in the UK with nearly 40,000 students, of which approximately 28,500 are at undergraduate level. In support of this, Key Note (2011) state that the University of Manchester ranked number one for total student applications, receiving a staggering 58,252 applications during 2010. The university is supported by 10,712 staff, of which more than 4,500 are academic and research staff, making them one of
  13. 13. 13 the biggest employers in the North West (University of Manchester, 2012b). According to Times Higher Education World University Rankings (2012), the university ranked 48th in the world for 2012, which represents a 39 place improvement on their ranking of 87th in 2011. At a European level, the university ranked 9th in 2012, behind only 6 other UK universities - Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Imperial College London, University College London, and London School of Economics and Political Science. Although the university is widely recognised on the international stage, the Complete University Guide (2012), which is compiled by Mayfield University Consultants, placed the University of Manchester a mediocre 29th in the UK for 2012. Although the overall rankings are derived from entry standards, student satisfaction, research assessment and graduate prospects, it is evident that the university placed poorly in terms of student satisfaction. Of the 116 universities surveyed, the university ranked 106th . These figures are particularly concerning considering that the university is one of those set to charge the maximum £9,000 tuition fee rate as of September 2012. Despite this, and in response to rising tuition fees, the President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Manchester, Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell, states: “…this is necessary to ensure and improve the quality of teaching and the wider experience that we offer to all of our student.” (BBC, 2011) This illustrates that reputable individuals at the university acknowledge the need to continually improve the university experience for students. Accordingly, an understanding of the current provision of service quality could provide university service management with invaluable insights, as well as highlighting potential areas that could be improved to enhance the university experience for students. After all, providing a high level of quality can help build customer loyalty and positive word-of- mouth (Abdullah, 2006a), which ultimately assists in producing higher profit margins for an organisation. 1.4 Study Structure The purpose of this chapter is to set the scene for the rest of the study. Chapter 2 investigates current literature, focusing predominantly on the Nature of Services, the
  14. 14. 14 Construct of Service Quality, and the Measurement of Service Quality in the context of higher education. This is useful for formulating research objectives and questions, which are uncovered in Chapter 3. Following this, Chapter 4 details the study’s methodology, which includes a justification of the research approach adopted, the data collection method and data analysis procedures, as well as ethical considerations. Subsequently, Chapter 5 incorporates both the findings and discussion into one succinct chapter, which aims to present, analyse and discuss the results of the study in relation to the literature reviewed in Chapter 2. Finally, Chapter 6 presents conclusions and recommendations based on the findings and discussions detailed in Chapter 5, as well as detailing the limitations of the study and future research opportunities.
  15. 15. 15 2. Literature Review 2.1 Introduction This chapter examines the relevant literature relating to the construct of service quality – a heavily researched component of the services marketing literature (Baron et al., 2009). In particular, it seeks to unravel and critically analyse the relevant theories, models and concepts from key authors in the subject field, whilst addressing the role played by service quality in a higher education context. The literature review is divided into three sections: the Nature of Services (Section 2.2.), the Construct of Service Quality (Section 2.3) and Measuring Service Quality (Section 2.4). The Nature of Services concentrates on introducing and defining services in the context of higher education. Following an introduction to services, the Construct of Service Quality is examined, attempting to understand what is termed an ‘elusive’ and ‘indistinct’ construct by many academics (Bolton and Drew, 1991; Carman, 1990; Cronin and Taylor, 1992; Parasuraman et al., 1988). Within this section, the debate surrounding the relationship between service quality and satisfaction is explored. A section on Measuring Service Quality follows, uncovering the different instruments developed by academics to measure service quality. Finally, the literature review concludes with a summary of the chapter that details the key findings, as well as highlighting a gap in the current literature that this study seeks to address. 2.2 The Nature of Services 2.2.1 The Importance of Services According to Zeithaml et al. (1993), services marketing did not emerge as a distinct research discipline until the late 1970s. In less than four decades services have become the dominant form of economic activity and are now playing an increasingly important role in the economy of many nations (Abdullah, 2006a). There appears to be a positive relationship between economic development of a country and its service sector; developed economies are increasingly more service orientated (Palmer, 2011). For instance, in the United Kingdom approximately 77% of workers
  16. 16. 16 are employed in the service sector, in comparison to only 38% of workers in Thailand – a particularly less developed country than the United Kingdom (International Labour Organization, 2009, cited in Palmer, 2011). 2.2.2 Defining a Service Many definitions exist in regards to what constitutes a service. However, Palmer (2011, p. 2) defines a service as: “The production of an essentially intangible benefit, either in its own right or as a significant element of a tangible product, which through some form of exchange, satisfies an identified need.” Alternatively, Lovelock and Wright (1999, p. 5) adopt a more informal approach, defining a service as: “Something that may be bought and sold but that cannot be dropped on your foot.” Finally, Zeithaml et al. (2009, p. 4), state: “…services are deeds, processes, and performances provided or co-produced by one entity or person for another entity or person.” Each definition captures the intangible nature of services, illustrating the most fundamental difference between a service and good. However, it is also evident that as well as differences, similarities between services and goods also exist. Therefore, it is appropriate to distinguish between the two to broaden the definition of a service. 2.2.3 Services versus Goods In the past, marketing literature fundamentally focused on the manufacturing of tangible goods, discounting services and treating them like goods because of the
  17. 17. 17 difficulty in defining and measuring a service (see e.g. Shostack, 1977). However, Gronroos (1978) suggests that services should not be treated as physical goods. Nonetheless, ambiguity still exists today, since services and goods share much of the conceptual underpinning of quality (Palmer, 2011). Despite this, services tend to pose much greater problems in the understanding of customers’ needs and expectations than goods, which form the basis for evaluation (Palmer, 2011). Hill (1995) manages to differentiate between goods and services, suggesting that a service is ephemeral and can only be consumed as long as the process continues. However, due to the heterogeneity of services, an individual’s time spent consuming a service could be longer lasting, challenging the notion that services are short-lived (Zeithaml et al, 2009). Notwithstanding this issue, Parasuraman et al. (1985) argue that the presence of tangible cues when purchasing goods (e.g. style, colour, feel and fit) make it is easier for the customer to evaluate goods in comparison to services. This limits the evaluation of a service to the service provider’s physical facilities, equipment and personnel. Services can also be differentiated from goods by examining their properties. As identified by Zeithaml (1981), the properties of a service, namely, search, experience and credence, influence how the service or good is evaluated. Search properties are those elements that help customers to evaluate offerings prior to purchase. Experience properties allow evaluation after performance of the service whereas credence properties relate to those characteristics that customers find difficult to evaluate even after purchase and consumption (Baines et al., 2008). Most services contain few search properties and are high in experience and credence properties, making their quality increasingly difficult to evaluate compared to the quality of goods (Zeithaml, 1981). More recently, Baines et al. (2008) assert that most physical goods are high in search properties, whereas services tend to have higher levels of experience and credence characteristics. 2.2.4 The Characteristics of Services An examination of the characteristics of services is useful when differentiating between a service and a good. As highlighted by Parasuraman et al. (1988), and later Giese and Cote (2000), the difficulty in defining and measuring services is generally due to their unique characteristics (Zeithaml et al., 1985) - intangibility, inseparability, heterogeneity, perishability and lack of ownership. It appears to be the
  18. 18. 18 general consensus between many academics that these are the characteristics that differentiate services from goods (Fisk et al., 1993; Nadiri, et al., 2009; Palmer, 2011; Parasuraman et al., 1988). Firstly, due to the intangible nature of services, problems tend to arise for both the service provider and the consumer. This can often present problems for service providers when attempting to differentiate their offerings from that of the competition (Hill, 1995). Secondly, the heterogeneity of services makes most services unique, resulting in problems when attempting to standardise a service. It is inevitable that one service encounter will differ from the next within the same organisation (Parasuraman et al., 1985), requiring the need to carefully manage the service encounter. Thirdly, since services are an experience, they can only be consumed if the service is made available to the consumer. Therefore, production and consumption occur at the same time, resulting in most services being deemed inseparable (Palmer, 2011). A further distinction between services and goods is that a service cannot be stored. This results in the need to pay more attention to the management of supply and demand of the service to ensure that the service is utilised to its maximum potential (Palmer, 2011). Similarly, the lack of ownership of services can be related to the inherent perishability of a service. When a service is performed, no ownership is transferred from the seller to the buyer (Palmer, 2011). In other words, the service is essentially temporary, giving the buyer the right to participate in the service process. It is clear that each characteristic poses significant implications for service management regarding the delivery of a quality service. This presents the challenge of understanding how the service is being perceived, consumed, or enacted when developing marketing strategies (Hill, 1995). 2.2.5 Higher Education as a Service DeShields et al. (2005) argue that it is essential for higher education management to apply market-orientated principles and strategies that are used in profit-making institutions. These principles and strategies are being applied to higher education institutions with the aim of gaining a competitive advantage (Hemsley-Brown and Oplatka, 2006). Accordingly, institutions are increasingly realising the importance of higher education as a service industry and are placing greater emphasis on meeting
  19. 19. 19 the expectations and needs of students (DeShields et al., 2005). Nadiri et al. (2009) point out that it is crucial for higher education providers to understand students’ expectations and perceptions of what constitutes a quality service in order to attract students and serve their needs. This promotes the need for higher education institutions to continue to deliver a quality service and satisfy its participating customers to achieve sustainability in a competitive service environment (DeShields et al., 2005). According to Oldfield and Baron (2000), higher education can be seen as a “pure service,” suggesting that it possesses all the unique characteristics of a service (Section 2.2.4). More recently, Gruber et al. (2010) assert that higher education is a service that is predominantly intangible, perishable and heterogeneous. This is due to the service experience varying from one situation to the next, making higher education service encounters difficult to standardise. Higher education as a service also satisfies the perishability criterion since it is difficult to store. However, ways to overcome this are evident, for instance, the emergence of e-learning and video technology (Cuthbert, 1996a) over the past fifteen years. As a result, service sectors such as higher education are attempting to defy the perishability characteristic of a service through the assistance of innovation and technological advances. Notwithstanding the characteristics of higher education as a service, it is important to appreciate that higher education institutions, like any other businesses, have different stakeholders with varying interests and agendas. 2.2.6 The Stakeholders of Higher Education It is important to define a stakeholder in order to enable an understanding of the various stakeholders in the context of higher education. An early definition, which is still very prominent today, is provided by Freeman (1984, p. 46), who defines a stakeholder as: “Any group or individual who can affect or is affected by the achievement of the organisation objectives.” It is common for many organisations to have a number of stakeholders with different opinions, interests and attitudes towards the organisation. This is no different in the
  20. 20. 20 context of higher education, where a number of stakeholders exist, all experiencing the institution in different ways. Stakeholders in a higher education institution tend to include students, their parents and family, the local community, society, the government, the governing body, staff, local authorities, and current and potential employers (Aldridge and Rowley, 1998). Due to the variety of stakeholders in higher education, it is natural for perceptions to vary between different stakeholder groups (Appleton-Knapp and Krentler, 2006). Gruber et al. (2010) argue that every stakeholder involved in a higher education institution has their own view of quality due to particular needs. Moreover, quality means different things to different people depending on the context being examined (Lovelock and Wirtz, 2011), illustrating the importance of acknowledging different stakeholder groups. 2.2.7 The Student as the Primary Stakeholder Identifying the primary stakeholder in higher education is problematic (Cuthbert, 1996a). This combined with the issue that service providers can only deliver an effective service if they know what the customer wants (Gruber et al., 2010), makes the identification of the primary stakeholder even more crucial. Hill (1995) claims that students are the primary stakeholders of higher education services in the UK, demonstrating that they play a key role in the production and delivery process of the service. More recently, Gruber et al. (2010) contend that students are the specific and primary target audience, stressing the need for academic administrators to focus on understanding their requirements. In addition, if universities focus on understanding how their students perceive the services offered, they may be able to adapt their services in a way that stimulates a positive impact on students’ perceived service quality (Section 2.3.3). This could provide the institution with a certain competitive advantage, principally in terms of generating positive word-of-mouth communication between potential, current and future students (Alves and Raposo, 2009). This study recognises that there are a range stakeholders in higher education. However, the focus for the study is the student as the primary stakeholder, with the aim of revealing what they actually think, which may support or contradict what other representatives in higher education believe. Therefore, all subsequent discussion pertaining to stakeholders in higher education relates to the student as the primary stakeholder.
  21. 21. 21 2.3 The Construct of Service Quality 2.3.1 Importance Service quality has been a prominent research topic for many service marketers and researchers over the last three decades. Baron et al., (2009, p. 167) maintain that: “Service quality is the single most researched area in services marketing to date.” The reason for the vast interest in service quality is obvious; poor quality places the firm at a disadvantage to the rest of the competition, potentially driving away dissatisfied customers (Lovelock and Wirtz, 2011). Organisations are operating in extremely tough environments, and service managers now realise that improving service quality is crucial for gaining a competitive advantage (Baron et al., 2009; Parasuraman et al., 1985). Where there is competition, the quality of the service experience becomes an important factor in buyer decision-making (Cuthbert, 1996a). Accordingly, service quality is particularly important for organisational growth and differentiating one service experience from another (Parasuraman et al., 1985). Service quality is widely regarded as a driver of corporate marketing and financial performance (Buttle, 1996). It is no surprise that service quality is a heavily researched topic due to its supposed relationship with costs (Crosby, 1979), profitability (Rust and Zahorik, 1993), customer satisfaction (Cronin and Taylor, 1992), customer retention (Bolton and Drew, 1991), and positive word-of-mouth (Stodnick and Rogers, 2008). In the context of higher education, each of the relationships mentioned above are of fundamental importance given the decreased funding available for universities and the controversial rise in tuition fees proposed for September 2012 (Section 1.1). 2.3.2 Defining Service Quality Many researchers have termed service quality an ‘elusive’ and ‘indistinct’ construct that is difficult to define and measure (Bolton and Drew, 1991; Carman, 1990; Cronin and Taylor, 1992; Parasuraman et al., 1988). Baron et al. (2009) claim that service
  22. 22. 22 quality is a highly abstract construct in contrast to goods quality, where technical aspects of quality are evident. Moreover, Clewes (2003) suggests that one unresolved issue in the service quality field includes finding an appropriate definition for service quality and a suitable model for measuring service quality. Crosby (1979, p. 15) provides one of the earliest definitions of quality, suggesting that it is “the conformation to specifications.” According to Crosby (1979, p. 17), quality is often mistaken for imprecise adjectives like “goodness, or luxury or shininess or weight,” illustrating the indefinable nature of the construct. Nevertheless, Lewis and Booms (1983, p. 100) were one of the first to define quality in terms of services, defining service quality as: “…a measure of how well the service level delivered matches customer’s expectations.” This definition can be developed by Parasuraman et al. (1988), who argue that service quality stems from a comparison of a consumer’s general expectations with their actual perceptions of a firm. As a result, the level of service quality can be measured by how much the service provided to consumers exceeds their expectations (Lovelock and Wirtz, 2011). Alternatively, authors such as Berry et al. (1988), propose that service quality is an overall evaluation similar to an attitude. This illustrates that there appears to be confusion and no general consensus between academics with regards to a definitive definition for service quality. 2.3.3 Perceived Service Quality Due to the subjective nature of service quality (Rust and Oliver, 1994), the services marketing literature focuses on quality in terms of perceived service quality (Nadiri et al., 2009). Perceived service quality results from the comparison of customer service expectations with their perceptions of actual performance (Zeithaml et al., 1990), and is seen as a global judgement of the service (Parasuraman et al., 1988). Athiyaman (1997) extends this idea, claiming that perceived service quality is an overall evaluation of the goodness or badness of a product or service.
  23. 23. 23 Perceptions of service quality differ between different parties. For example, the discussion pertaining to different stakeholders in higher education (Section 2.2.6) demonstrates that a customer’s perceptions of service quality might not be the same as company perceptions of service quality, resulting in a mismatch when attempting to measure service quality. In addition, perceptions of service quality change over time. In the context of higher education, experiences of students are varied and continuous, over months and years (Cuthbert, 1996a). This highlights the relevance of the context when measuring perceived service quality. Hill (1995) adds to the complexity of perceived service quality, stating that the service does not just depend on the service provider, but also on the performance of the consumer. The co-production of services is of greatest concern to an organisation when customers are more involved in the production process (Palmer, 2011). This is extremely significant in the context of higher education, as the participation of the student is vital since they play a large role in determining the success of the service. As a result, managing and monitoring the quality of services is increasingly difficult for the service provider (Palmer, 2011). 2.3.4 Service Quality in Higher Education According to Sultan and Wong (2010), service quality research in the higher education sector is relatively new, at least when compared to that of the commercial sector. With significant changes taking place in higher education institutions over the last decade, it seems that higher education should be regarded as a business-like service industry, which focuses on meeting and exceeding the needs of students (Gruber et al., 2010). Many higher education institutions are beginning to realise this and are competing for students, both in the local and international market (Paswan and Ganesh, 2009). Furthermore, with the emergence of many informal platforms for students to post their views on their experiences (e.g. The Student Room), higher education institutions are increasingly being called to account for the quality of education that they provide. Accordingly, achieving quality has become an important goal for most higher education institutions (Abdullah, 2006b). Harvey and Green (1993) contend that quality in higher education is a complex and multifaceted concept and an appropriate definition is lacking. There are many ways to define quality in higher education and each definition has its own criteria and perspective and is regarded as ‘stakeholder relative’ (Harvey and Green, 1993). In
  24. 24. 24 terms of the student as the stakeholder, DeShields et al. (2005) argue that the higher education sector needs to continue to deliver a high quality service and satisfy students in order to succeed in a competitive service environment. Therefore, attempting to evaluate the level of service quality and understanding how different factors impact overall service quality is crucial so that higher education institutions can design their service in the best possible way (Abdullah, 2006b). Furthermore, knowing the strengths and weaknesses of different factors and their relative influence may lead to better allocation of resources, resulting in students being provided with an improved service (Abdullah, 2006b). 2.3.5 Expectations and Perceptions The services marketing literature presents an interesting debate regarding whether customer expectations and perceptions should be used, or whether it is appropriate to use purely perceptions to form judgements (see e.g. Cronin and Taylor, 1992, 1994). Despite this, Zeithaml et al. (1990) maintain that word of mouth communications, personal needs, external communications from the service provider, price and past experiences of the service are pivotal in influencing the customer’s expectations. Notwithstanding the issues associated with multiple stakeholders discussed earlier (Section 2.2.6), Berry et al. (1988) suggest that the consumer is the sole judge of service quality and that it is assessed by comparing expectations with their actual experience of the service (Section 2.3.2). Zeithaml et al. (1990) propose that knowing what the customer expects is an essential step for delivering good service quality. This demonstrates the importance of understanding consumer expectations, how they develop and their significance when managing service quality. On the other hand, many academics believe in disregarding expectations completely, stating that recalling them can be problematic (see e.g. Abdullah, 2006a, 2006b; Cronin and Taylor, 1992, 1994; Oldfield and Baron, 2000). Theories of hindsight bias (see e.g. Hawkins and Hastie, 1990) suggest that people generally do not recall the past correctly but rather allow their experience to shape what they claim to have believed initially, resulting in the possibility of biased expectations (Appleton-Knapp and Krentler, 2006). Furthermore, in the context of higher education, Hill (1995) suggests that students’ expectations of higher education are informed by their experiences at high school leading to a potential mismatch between expectations and perceived service quality.
  25. 25. 25 Despite the debate surrounding the relevance of expectations, it is appropriate to discuss the disconfirmation paradigm, as this provides a basis for understanding the relationship between student expectations and student satisfaction (Appleton-Knapp and Krentler, 2006). 2.3.6 The Disconfirmation Paradigm Traditionally, the disconfirmation paradigm has been used extensively to determine satisfaction. However, the disconfirmation paradigm is a flexible model that is also useful for the measurement of quality in services (see e.g. Gronroos, 1982). The paradigm is useful for understanding the relationship between a consumer’s expectations and actual perceptions (Figure 2.1). It utilises four important constructs – expectations, performance, disconfirmation, and satisfaction (Smith and Houston, 1982, cited in Parasuraman et al., 1985). Expectations are predictions of performance and their comparison with perceived performance leads to three possible outcomes: Confirmation: Occurs when actual performance is as expected. Positive disconfirmation: Occurs when actual performance is greater than expectations. Figure 2.1: The Disconfirmation Model Source: Walker (1995)
  26. 26. 26 Negative disconfirmation: Occurs when actual performance is less than expectations. Positive disconfirmation produces satisfaction, whereas negative disconfirmation produces dissatisfaction (Buttle, 1995). Moreover, when the expected and perceived performance is the same, the customer is neither satisfied nor dissatisfied (Buttle, 1996). This paradigm has been studied and tested by many researchers and serves as the basis for the vast majority of satisfaction studies (Appleton-Knapp and Krentler, 2006). 2.3.7 The Relationship between Service Quality and Satisfaction The terms ‘service quality’ and ‘satisfaction’ are often used in an interchangeable manner (Palmer, 2011), causing difficulty when attempting to distinguish between the two theoretical concepts. Like service quality, customer satisfaction is an abstract and ambiguous concept (Munteanu et al., 2010) and many researchers have attempted to develop a consensus definition for this construct (Giese and Cote, 2000). Satisfaction has been defined as the perception of pleasurable fulfilment of a service (Oliver, 1999). In contrast, Athiyaman (1997) argues that satisfaction is the result of the evaluation of a specific transaction or consumption experience. Despite this, measuring customer satisfaction provides organisations with one way to ascertain the success of a product following its introduction to its market (Munteanu et al., 2010). On the other hand, service quality is interpreted as an enduring global attitude, encompassing a view of the organisation in its entirety, while satisfaction is related to a specific transaction or consumption experience (Rowley, 1997). Parasuraman et al. (1985) also suggest that service quality is a form of attitude that is connected with satisfaction but can still be differentiated. However, Carman (1990) argues that it is uncommon for researchers to refer to quality as an attitude. Despite the controversy, a clear distinction can be made between the two constructs; quality is based on current perceptions whereas satisfaction is based on past, present and anticipated experiences or outcomes (Anderson et al., 1994). Sureshchandar et al. (2002) maintain that satisfaction possesses a multi-dimensional nature, proposing that satisfaction should be operationalised along the same dimensions that constitute service quality. It was established that satisfaction and
  27. 27. 27 service quality were strongly correlated; however, the authors concluded that they were indeed two separate constructs. Finally, Zeithaml et al. (2009) see satisfaction as a broader concept than service quality, suggesting that service quality is a component of satisfaction. 2.3.8 The Antecedent: Service Quality or Satisfaction? A heavily debated topic in the services marketing literature relates to whether satisfaction influences service quality or vice-versa. Cronin and Taylor (1992) contend that service quality is an antecedent to satisfaction and that the direction of causality is from service quality to satisfaction. However, the authors also state that the causal directional relationship between satisfaction and service quality needed further study (Cronin and Taylor, 1994). Still, the majority of recent publications consider service quality as an antecedent to customer satisfaction (Gruber et al., 2010). While a significant amount of research suggests that service quality is a vital antecedent to customer satisfaction, there is also evidence suggesting that satisfaction may be an antecedent to service quality (Bitner, 1990). Likewise, Parasuraman et al. (1988) also argue that consumer satisfaction leads to perceived service quality. Regardless of which construct is the antecedent, it is clear that the relationship between satisfaction and service quality is strong when examined in both directions. Despite the different arguments proposed by various authors, this study focuses on service quality as the main construct. Therefore, it is assumed for the basis of this study that service quality is an antecedent of satisfaction, advocating that service quality influences satisfaction. 2.4 Measuring Service Quality 2.4.1 Introduction Practitioners and academics are keen to accurately measure service quality in order to better understand its essential antecedents and consequences, and ultimately establish methods for improving quality to achieve a competitive advantage and build customer loyalty (Abdullah, 2006a). In addition, there are many areas of
  28. 28. 28 disagreement in the debate of relating to measuring service quality (Abdullah, 2006a). Some authors deem service quality difficult to define and model as a result of the problems involved in conceptualising and measuring the construct (Parasuraman et al., 1985). This is predominantly due to the intangible nature of services, making conceptualisation more difficult for services than goods (Palmer, 2011). Therefore, it is no surprise that the complexity in conceptualising and measuring service quality has been deemed to be one of the most debated and controversial topics in services marketing (Brady and Cronin, 2001). Despite numerous attempts by academics, no single model of service quality is universally accepted (Clewes, 2003). Moreover, a review of the existing literature demonstrates that there is no agreement pertaining to the measurement of service quality (Marzo-Navarro et al., 2005), providing further evidence to illustrate that a generally accepted measurement scale does not exist. 2.4.2 Models for Measuring Service Quality Over the last three decades, a range of conceptual frameworks and models have been proposed that attempt to measure service quality (see e.g. Abdullah, 2006a, 2006b; Cronin and Taylor, 1992, 1994; Gronroos, 1984; Parasuraman et al., 1985, 1988). According to Palmer (2011), the main methods used to measure service quality are performance-only and disconfirmation approaches. Furthermore, the most widely used methods applied to measure service quality can be categorised as quantitative multi-attribute measurements (Abdullah, 2006a), for instance, the SERVQUAL approach (Parasuraman et al., 1988), the SERVPERF approach, and in the context of higher education, the HEdPERF approach (Abdullah, 2006a, 2006b). Of the approaches highlighted above, the most frequently cited model is the SERVQUAL model, which stems from the earlier work of Gronroos (1984). Furthermore, the development of the SERVPERF model has encouraged the introduction of context specific models for measuring service quality. Abdullah (2006) developed the Higher Education performance-only model (HEdPERF). The model is a comprehensive performance-based measuring scale that attempts to capture the determinants of service quality within the higher education sector. 2.4.3 The Perceived Service Quality Model Gronroos (1982, 1984) was one of the first authors to conceptualise service quality with the development of the perceived service quality model (Figure 2.2). The model
  29. 29. 29 is based on the disconfirmation paradigm (Section 2.3.6), where the consumer compares their expectations with their perceptions, and the quality of the service is determined by the outcome of this evaluation process. Gronroos (1984) claims that two types of service quality exist, namely, technical quality and functional quality. Technical quality relates to what is provided during the service process (e.g. knowledge, tangibles and technical solutions). These are the relatively quantifiable aspects of the service, which the customer and supplier can easily measure (Gronroos, 1984). On the other hand, functional quality refers to how the service is provided and the interpersonal behaviours contributed by the service employee during the service encounter. It is more difficult to measure than technical quality (Gronroos, 1984). Gronroos (2007) proposes that the gap between the expected service and perceived service is of utmost importance and that it is vital for a service organisation to keep this gap as small as possible. In addition, it is important for managers to understand how the technical quality and functional quality of a service is influenced, and how customers perceive these quality dimensions (Gronroos, 2007) to ensure perceived service quality is maximised. Figure 2.2: The Perceived Service Quality Model Source: Gronroos (1984)
  30. 30. 30 2.4.4 The SERVQUAL Model The introduction of the perceived service quality model encouraged the development of the SERVQUAL model (Parasuraman et al., 1985, 1988). SERVQUAL is founded on the view that the customer’s assessment of service quality is paramount (Figure 2.3). As with the perceived service quality model, the disconfirmation model (Section 2.3.6) is employed. In this instance, quality evaluations as perceived by customers, stem from a comparison of what the customers feel the organisation should offer and their perceptions of the performance of the organisation providing the service (Aldridge and Rowley, 1998). Parasuraman et al. (1988) believe that the level of perceived service quality is dependent on the magnitude of the gap between expectations and perceptions – the smaller the gap, the higher the level of perceived service quality. As identified by Parasuraman et al. (1988), the SERVQUAL model uses 22 items, asking customers what they expect from an organisation in terms of service quality (Appendix A). A seven-point Likert scale is used to record expectations and Figure 2.3: The SERVQUAL Model Source: Parasuraman et al. (1985)
  31. 31. 31 perceptions (Aldridge and Rowley, 1998). Parasuraman et al. (1988, p. 23) illustrate that the model incorporates five dimensions: Reliability: The ability to perform the promised service dependably and accurately. Responsiveness: Willingness to help customers and provide prompt service. Empathy: The caring, individualised attention the firm provides its customers. Assurance: The knowledge and courtesy of employees and their ability to inspire trust and confidence. Tangibles: Physical facilities, equipment, and appearance of personnel. Parasuraman et al. (1988) assert that the SERVQUAL instrument could be applied to most service organisations. The use of a SERVQUAL instrument is particularly relevant in the context of higher education (see e.g. Cuthbert, 1996a, 1996b; Hill, 1995; Oldfield and Baron, 2000). In particular, Cuthbert (1996a, 1996b) used the SERVQUAL scale to measure student perceptions of university service quality. The author found very weak results when testing the five SERVQUAL dimensions and concluded that using a SERVQUAL scale to measure university service quality was inappropriate. The author argues that a modified SERVQUAL instrument might be applicable since it may be able to capture a better representation of the entire student experience (Cuthbert, 1996a). Literature relating to the validity and reliability of the SERVQUAL model is extremely well documented (Buttle, 1995; Carman, 1990; Cronin and Taylor, 1992, 1994). One Figure 2.4: Determinants of Perceived Service Quality Source: Parasuraman et al. (1988)
  32. 32. 32 of the most controversial issues is the reliability of SERVQUAL (Nadiri et al., 2009). Firstly, the dimensions are not generic; that is, the applicability of the SERVQUAL scale to different service settings is questionable (Abdullah, 2006a). Secondly, it is argued that the five dimensions are not universal, since the number of dimensions comprising service quality is contextualised (Buttle, 1995). Therefore, it is no surprise that the application of the SERVQUAL model in a higher education context has been met with little success (Aldridge and Rowley, 1998). Despite the criticisms SERVQUAL has received, it is clear that the model provides a convenient starting point for practitioners and academics seeking to measure and monitor perceived service quality. It provides a platform that is capable of directing attention to issues of service quality, which can be built upon to generate a more comprehensive interpretation of service quality. It is usually impractical to measure expectations before the service is experienced (Palmer, 2011). In the context of higher education, it is commonly out of the bounds of the researcher to be able to capture student expectations of the university they intend on joining. As a result, the researcher often tries to record expectations retrospectively, which can be problematic, since expectations may have been influenced by service delivery resulting in measurement becoming fairly meaningless (Palmer, 2011). Buttle (1996) argues that there is little evidence that customers assess service quality in terms of performance minus expectations. Consequently, alternative approaches have been developed that attempt to improve the validity and reliability of this model. 2.4.5 The SERVPERF Model Cronin and Taylor (1992) were one of the first authors to criticise the reliability and validity of the SERVQUAL model. In response to the limitations of the SERVQUAL model, Cronin and Taylor (1992) developed the SERVPERF scale, which was born out of the inadequacies of SERVQUAL. The authors believe that service quality should be defined simply on perceptions, basing their model on the premise that it is difficult to conceptualise expectations. This led to the development of a more direct form of measurement that utilised an attitudinal rather than a disconfirmation paradigm (Cronin and Taylor, 1992). The SERVPERF approach requires the customer to rate only the service provider’s performance in a particular service encounter.
  33. 33. 33 Empirical results suggest that SERVPERF offers better reliability than SERVQUAL, illustrating that expectations can be disregarded for assessment (Cronin and Taylor, 1992). In response to this, Parasuraman et al. (1994) defended the inclusion of expectations suggesting that the diagnostic value of SERVQUAL offsets the instrument loss of predictive power. In consideration of both models, Zeithaml et al. (1996) contend that using only perceptions to measure service quality was more appropriate if the primary purpose of the research was to explain the variance in a dependent construct. Despite this, a recent study concluded that both the SERVPERF and SERVQUAL scales are adequate predictors of overall service quality (Carrillat et al., 2007). Taking into account this evidence, this study focuses on collecting current perceptions of students, rather than attempting to collect expectations retrospectively as well. Empirical evidence from Cronin and Taylor (1992) endorse the feasibility of this approach, demonstrating that the quality of the study it is not disadvantaged by disregarding expectations. Evidence of the application of the SERVPERF model in the higher education context can be uncovered. Many researchers have preferred this methodology to SERVQUAL and have used an adapted performance version of SERVQUAL to measure the perceptions of service quality and evaluate students’ course experience (see e.g. Abdullah, 2006a; Hill, 1995; McElwee and Redman, 1993; Oldfield and Baron, 2000; Rigotti and Pitt, 1992). In particular, Oldfield and Baron (2000) investigated students’ perceptions of service quality in a university in the UK. The research identified that students’ perceived service quality has three dimensions: Requisite elements: Essential to enable students to fulfil their study obligations. Acceptable elements: Desirable but not essential to students. Functional elements: Possess a practical or utilitarian nature. This study is also based on determining students’ perceptions of service quality, but also the relative importance of different elements and how the importance of various factors changes across different years of study (i.e. first year and third year students).
  34. 34. 34 2.4.6 The HEdPERF Model Despite the emergence of the SERVQUAL and SERVPERF models, it has been suggested that industry-specific service quality measures may prove more relevant (Carman, 1990; Cronin and Taylor, 1992; Zeithaml et al., 1985). Generic measures (e.g. SERVQUAL and SERVPERF) of service quality may not be totally suitable for assessing perceived quality in higher education (Abdullah, 2006a), creating the need for an instrument specific to the higher education sector. In addition, it has been recognised that little has been done to identify the determinants of service quality in higher education from the viewpoint of the student (Abdullah, 2006a). As a result, Abdullah (2006a) developed the HEdPERF model. The model is an adaptation of the standard SERVPERF model (see e.g. Cronin and Taylor, 1992), adopting a perceptions-only approach. Abdullah (2006a) states that the aim of this model is to capture a context specific view of service quality in higher education, enabling the whole student experience to be measured. The instrument measures 41-items (Appendix B) and each item have been tested for reliability and validity, using both types of factorial analysis, exploratory and confirmatory (Abdullah, 2006a). Furthermore, comparative results show that the HEdPERF scale captures more variance relative to that of the SERVPERF scale (Sultan and Wong, 2010). Abdullah (2006a) argues that tertiary institutions can use HEdPERF to improve service performance. In particular, research findings confirm that students’ perceptions of service quality can be determined by evaluating six dimensions, specifically, non-academic aspects, academic aspects, reputation, access, programme issues and understanding. Evaluating service quality and understanding how these dimensions impact service quality can enable higher education institutions to efficiently design the service delivery process (Abdullah, 2006a). This is important given the current economic climate since many UK universities are facing substantial funding cuts (Section 1.1.2). In addition, rising tuition fees have the potential to disenchant students from higher education (Section 1.1.1), making it even more crucial to consider the provision of service quality. Furthermore, it is important to satisfy students, since satisfied students will recommend the service to other prospective students and will also be more likely to continue the relationship with the service provider (Munteanu et al., 2010). Therefore, since the student is the main recipient of the service, it becomes even more crucial to understand service quality and its influence on the service delivery process, in an attempt to fulfil students’ needs more effectively.
  35. 35. 35 2.4.7 Existing Approaches to Service Quality Measurement in Higher Education Many higher education institutions use in-house evaluation techniques to measure the quality of education provided to students, as well as an assessment of student satisfaction (Munteanu et al., 2010). They tend to perform an evaluation of other aspects of the student experience beyond the assessment of the quality of teaching and learning (Aldridge and Rowley, 1998). According to Gibson (2010), higher education institutions normally use a survey to obtain student feedback on a particular academic programme. These normally incorporate questions relating to various aspects of the programme, including questions relating to satisfaction with regards to the overall academic experience. In addition, the survey tends to include corroborating questions, for instance, whether or not the student would recommend the programme to others (Gibson, 2010). In contrast, Manchester Business School obtain feedback from students by distributing a standard course specific survey at the end of each semester, requiring students to evaluate their experience of a particular module (Appendix C). In turn, completed questionnaires are collected and analysed; results are sent to faculties, as well as the course leaders (Palihawadana and Holmes, 1996). Alternatively, some universities, such as the University of Manchester, also utilise external bodies to measure their service quality. An example of this is the National Student Survey (NSS) (Appendix D). The NSS provides an opportunity for final year students to give opinions on what they liked about their institution and course, as well as things that could be improved (Student Survey, 2011). Subsequently, feedback is used to compile year-on-year comparative data, which prospective students can use to make informed choices in regards to where and what to study (Student Survey, 2011). Meanwhile, universities can use the data to enhance the student’s university experience. Finally, the survey is administered by an independent market research agency (e.g. Ipsos MORI), in order to ensure transparency and encourage a fair assessment of each university (Student Survey, 2011). 2.4.8 The Search for a Uniform Measurement Model in Higher Education There is an extensive amount of literature pertaining to the search for a general scale and instrument for the measurement of service quality in all or a number of distinct groups of service contexts (Aldridge and Rowley, 1998). Furthermore, Seth et al.
  36. 36. 36 (2005, p. 933) state that: “There does not seem to be a well-accepted conceptual definition and model of service quality nor is there any generally accepted operation definition of how to measure service quality.” Although measurement scales such as SERVQUAL and SERVPERF were designed as generic measures of service quality, it is important to view these instruments as the basic platforms, which often require modification to fit the specific situation (Abdullah, 2006a). More specifically, higher education institutions must focus their attention on the dimensions perceived to be important rather than focusing on a number of different attributes (Abduallah, 2006a). However, the approach of attempting to determine what students perceive to be the important dimensions through the use of surveys is questionable. According to Gruber et al. (2010), many existing surveys are poorly designed, lack standardisation and give no evidence concerning reliability or validity. Therefore, it is inevitable that problems pertaining to the reliability and validity will arise when developing an instrument (e.g. the HEdPERF model) that attempts to capture and model the complex and multifaceted nature of service quality (Hill, 1995). More sophisticated approaches to the construct of service quality within the service encounter are required (Svensson, 2006). Abdullah (2006a) suggests that it may be time to bury the existing instruments and attempt to reconstruct or redefine service quality from a new and different perspective. However, instead of trying to generalise and attempt to model service quality for a particular sector (e.g. higher education), Sultan and Wong (2010) see service quality as a contextual issue since its dimensions vary widely. Therefore, it could be more worthwhile to investigate service quality based entirely on the situation at hand, since findings may vary from one situation to the next. Carrillat et al. (2007) support this view suggesting that the measurement of service quality should be adapted to context of each study. Customers do not perceive quality in a one-dimensional way but rather judge quality based on multiple factors relevant to the context (Zeithaml et al., 2009).
  37. 37. 37 2.5 Chapter Summary The chapter has reviewed the literature regarding the nature of services, the construct of service quality and the measurement of service quality. In summary, it has been acknowledged that the construct of service quality is complex and multi- faceted in nature, making it increasingly difficult to measure. It has also been established that confining the measurement of service quality to its particular context could be more useful than using a generic methodology (e.g. SERVQUAL). A review of the literature has uncovered a gap that this research attempts to address. It is evident that service quality is deemed an ‘elusive’ and ‘indistinct’ construct by many authors (Bolton and Drew, 1991; Carman, 1990; Cronin and Taylor, 1992; Parasuraman et al., 1988). Furthermore, there appears to be no definitive instrument that accurately measures service quality (Clewes, 2003), since many measurement instruments tend to be generic and subject to various criticisms in terms of their reliability and validity. Accordingly, Abdullah (2006a) suggests that measuring service quality using existing instruments is inadequate and that there is a need to explore service quality from new perspectives. In consideration of these issues, a gap exists to conduct research that investigates students’ perceptions of services quality, using a combination of both quantitative and qualitative techniques applicable to the study context, in order to provide service management at the University of Manchester with fresh insights regarding the current provision of service quality.
  38. 38. 38 3. Research Objectives and Questions The literature review presented in the previous chapter has raised a number of objectives and questions that this study seeks to investigate further. The fundamental purpose of this study is to investigate students’ perceptions of service quality at the University of Manchester. Accordingly, the following objectives can be proposed:  To identify the most and least influential characteristics of service quality as perceived by students studying at the University of Manchester.  To determine whether dissimilarities exist in students’ perceptions of service quality across different academic year groups.  To provide suggestions to university service management in an attempt to improve the service quality provided to students. The study attempts to answer the following research questions: 1. In terms of importance and performance, how do students perceive different characteristics of service quality at the University of Manchester? 2. Do discrepancies exist between students’ perceptions of service quality across different academic year groups? Findings to the research questions listed above enable the final research question to be answered: 3. How can service management at the University of Manchester improve the level of service quality provided to students?
  39. 39. 39 4. Methodology 4.1 Introduction The following chapter outlines the methodology and research techniques adopted to answer the research questions proposed in Chapter 3. The chapter begins by explaining the methodological stance of the researcher; justifying the course for research, which dictates subsequent methodology decisions (Malhotra and Birks, 2007). Following this, the use of focus groups as the primary data collection method is rationalised. Subsequently, the focus group data collection procedure is outlined, illustrating the sample, procedure and issues faced in the data collection process. Next, reliability and validity are considered, outlining the measures undertaken to maintain each of these. Finally, the ethical issues concerning the research are evaluated and the chapter concludes with a summary, which attempts to review the methodology and offer improvements for future research. 4.2 Methodological Stance The methodological stance of a researcher asserts how researchers view the world and what their assumptions and beliefs are concerning their existence (Saunders et al., 2009). Therefore, when conducting research, it is important to ensure that the philosophical position of the researcher is properly considered since this underpins the chosen research strategy (Saunders et al., 2009), ensuring that the phenomenon being investigated is fully understood (Johnson and Clarke, 2006). In order to determine the methodological stance of the researcher, two philosophical concepts must be considered, namely, epistemology and ontology (Saunders et al., 2009). Epistemology relates to the study of knowledge, its limitations and how the researcher interprets knowledge. It is concerned with how knowledge is generated and establishes which information is valid and which is not (Bryman and Bell, 2011). Traditionally, the paradigms of postivism and interpretivism are associated with epistemology (Malhotra and Birks, 2007). Generally, the paradigm determines which research techniques are adopted for a study (Malhotra and Birks, 2007). However, when choosing which paradigm is most applicable for research, Weber (2004) suggests that the researcher’s beliefs and the purpose of the research dictate this decision, as well as which method is most appropriate.
  40. 40. 40 Positivism is an epistemological position, which advocates the application of methods of the natural sciences to the study of social reality and beyond (Bryman and Bell, 2011). It is based on foundational principals that advocate the values of reason, truth and validity (Hatch and Cunliffe, 2006). Therefore, a positivist perspective suggests that human beings, their actions and institutions can be studied as objectively as the natural world (Fisher and Buglear, 2007). The researcher that embraces a positivist perspective believes that reality is ‘out there’ waiting to be captured (Malhotra and Birks, 2007). In capturing reality, a positivist approach focuses on research that involves scientific experimentation that places emphasis on a highly structured methodology (Gummesson, 2005). Furthermore, the overriding purpose of a positivist approach is to generate generalised laws that can be used to predict behaviour and provide an explanation for marketing phenomena (Fisher and Buglear, 2007). However, in critique of a positivist approach to research, Addis and Podesta (2005) assert that such an approach reduces participants of the study to mere numbers; disregarding any interactions they may have in the research process. On the other hand, interpretivism is an epistemological perspective that advocates the need to understand the differences between humans in their role as social actors (Saunders, et al., 2009). Interpretivism states that individuals create, modify and interpret the world, and that adopting such an approach is often useful for generating knowledge that is said to be socially constructive. The interpretivist approach uses a subjective approach to explore the world, suggesting that no independent objective reality exists. Accordingly, the interpretivist researcher believes that there may be a wide array of interpretations of realities. The interpretivist researcher does not set out to test hypotheses, but instead explores the nature and interrelationships of marketing phenomena (Malhotra and Birks, 2007). Ontology is a branch of philosophy that is concerned with the study of reality and dictates how a researcher approaches different phenomena (Saunders et al., 2009). Ontology is concerned with the nature of social entities and asks how we perceive objects to exist in the world (Bryman and Bell, 2011). It questions whether reality is objective and exists regardless of our perception of it, or whether it is subjective and only exists because we believe this to be so (Saunders et al., 2009). Therefore, a researcher must question whether social entities should be considered as objective entities that have a reality external to social actors, or whether they should be considered as social constructions built up from the perceptions and actions of social actors (Bryman and Bell, 2011).
  41. 41. 41 Conventionally, an objectivist is likely to favour quantitative research while a subjectivist will favour qualitative research. The main difference between quantitative and qualitative research is that quantitative researchers employ measurement and qualitative researchers do not (Bryman and Bell, 2011). However, Strauss and Corbin (1998) state that the decision of whether to use either qualitative or quantitative methods largely depends on the nature of the research problem. Furthermore, Weber (2004) criticises the approach of sticking too rigidly to one paradigm for research, suggesting that the best findings come from picking the most appropriate methods that are relevant to the research problem at hand. Alternatively, many authors suggest combining both quantitative and qualitative data since the two approaches are complementary, suggesting that they should not be used in isolation of each other (Jankowicz, 2005; Malhotra and Birks, 2007). Worryingly, many researchers fall into the trap of adopting a rigid position in favour of either qualitative or quantitative research (Malhotra and Birks, 2007), which can put the reliability and validity of the research study in jeopardy. Saunders et al. (2009) argue that the most appropriate philosophical stance depends on the research objectives and questions. Based on this assertion, the researcher’s beliefs and the literature presented above, this study adopts a positivist epistemological perspective that focuses on an objective ontological reality. Utilising an interpretivist approach for research would be inappropriate in this context, given that this perspective centres on personal opinion and feelings instead of attempting to establish objective reality. Instead, this study seeks to utilise a scientific approach to research in order to achieve truth and uncover reality. However, as illustrated above, it is crucial to avoid reducing participants of the study to mere numbers and disregarding their interaction in the research process. Therefore, since the approach taken depends on the research problem at hand, this study contradicts the customary use of solely quantitative research for a positivist approach and utilises a mixture of both qualitative and quantitative measurement where necessary. Sticking too rigidly to one approach by using either qualitative or quantitative measurement could jeopardise the findings and potentially impact the reliability and validity of the research, which ultimately affects the credibility of the study. Furthermore, it is reasonable to integrate qualitative research techniques (conventionally associated with interpretivist research) in a positivist study. This is supported by Onwuegbuzie and Leech (2005) who advocate that researchers should learn to appreciate both quantitative and qualitative research, regardless of the
  42. 42. 42 philosophical stance adopted by the researcher. The authors term adopters of this approach the ‘pragmatic researcher’. This type of researcher tends to deal with problems in a sensible and realistic manner that focuses more on practical rather than theoretical considerations. After all, it is widely accepted that research methodologies are merely tools that are designed to aid our understanding of the world (Onwuegbuzie and Leech, 2005). The ‘pragmatic researcher’ appreciates that incorporating both quantitative and qualitative techniques in the same study can strengthen the validity of a methodology, offsetting some of the limitations and problems associated with individual research techniques (Sechrest and Sidani, 1995). In consideration of this study, Onwuegbuzie and Leech (2005) add that the inclusion of qualitative data can be particularly useful for explaining and validating relationships that have been discovered by quantitative data, since relying on one type of data (i.e. number or words) can be extremely limiting. 4.3 Rationalising the Methodological Approach The methods and techniques that are most suitable for research depends on the research problem and its purpose (Jankowicz, 2005). Therefore, with the study’s philosophical stance, objectives and research questions in mind, this section of the methodology explains the rationale for selecting focus groups as the primary data collection tool for the methodology. Focus groups as a research technique have long been prominent in marketing studies (Krueger and Casey, 2009). Focus groups are a quick, flexible and inexpensive method of gathering data from several respondents in a short period of time (Ghauri and Gronhaug, 2010). Traditionally, focus groups are seen as an interpretivist research technique and useful for exploratory research when little is known about the phenomenon at hand (Stewart et al., 2007). However, as located in Section 4.2, their application is not solely dedicated to qualitative research. In support of this, Ghauri and Gronhaug (2010) state that although focus groups are mostly used for collecting qualitative data, they can also be used to produce quantitative data. This study defies common conventions, utilising focus groups as the main research technique, whilst researching from a positivist perspective. Saunders et al. (2009)
  43. 43. 43 provide evidence to support this approach, suggesting that it is possible to quantify qualitative data and convert it into numerical codes so that it can be analysed statistically. Ghauri and Gronhaug (2010) provide additional support suggesting that a researcher may collect and code the data that they have collected in such a manner that would allow statistical analysis. Given the nature of the study (i.e. cross-sectional) and the various resource constraints (i.e. time, money, accessibility) placed upon the researcher, focus groups appeared to be the most feasible method in comparison to other data collection methods. For instance, attempting to distribute large questionnaires to students across different academic years could have been problematic. There are multiple reasons for this, including the issues associated with achieving a good representation of the population and guaranteeing a high response rate (Malhotra and Birks, 2007), as well as the difficulty of accurately interpreting the results from the questionnaires (Ghauri and Gronhaug, 2010). 4.4 The Research Process: Focus Groups The purpose of the study is to investigate students’ perceptions of service quality so that suggestions can be provided to service management at the University of Manchester. In addition, the study is cross-sectional, focusing on determining whether perceptions change over the course of a student’s degree (i.e. Year 1 through to Year 3). Each of the focus groups was carried out over a two-week period at the beginning of semester two (February 2012) using students enrolled at the University of Manchester. Apart from one of the focus groups, the remaining five lasted approximately one and one and a half hours in duration, falling in line with guidelines set out by Ghauri and Gronhaug (2010) who believe that focus groups should last between 30 minutes and 2 hours to achieve the most promising results. 4.4.1 Sample In total, 36 BSc Management students from Manchester Business School participated in the study; including 16 females and 20 males, with an age range of 18-24 (Appendix E). This translates to a total of six semi-structured focus groups, each with six participants involved. In order to increase reliability and validity, two focus groups were conducted for each year of study (i.e. Year 1, Year 2 and Year 3). These characteristics fall in line with Malhotra and Birks (2007) who recommend that
  44. 44. 44 focus groups should have between six and ten participants. Importantly, Morgan (1998) asserts that groups of fewer than six are unlikely to generate the momentum for a successful session, while groups of more than ten may be too crowded and may not be conducive to a cohesive and natural discussion. More recently, Ghauri and Gronhaug (2010) claim that a focus group that is too small (e.g. less than 5 participants) or too large (e.g. more than 10 participant) can make the focus group ineffective as the participation of individuals can become too fragmented. The participants for each focus group were selected using convenience sampling. Convenience sampling is a non-probability sampling technique that is used to obtain a sample of convenient elements at the researcher’s own discretion (Saunders et al., 2009). In addition, convenience sampling is the least expensive and least time consuming of all sampling techniques (Malhotra and Birks, 2007). Therefore, in an attempt to maximise homogeneity between participants, a requirement of the sample was that all participants were enrolled on the BSc Management degree programme (including associated specialisms) and part of Manchester Business School. In support of this, Hair et al. (2008) recommend that focus groups should be as homogenous as possible. Furthermore, Krueger and Casey (2009) believe that it is important that some kind of homogeneity exists between the participants, but with enough difference to allow for variation of opinions and debate. Kitzinger (1994) claim that being with others who share similar experiences encourages those participating to express, clarify, or even to develop particular perspectives. In addition, commonality among group members is useful for avoiding conflict as well as acting as a mechanism that encourages more in-depth and open discussion (Ghauri and Gronhaug, 2010). The researcher acknowledges that convenience sampling may not be representative of a definable population (Ghauri and Gronhaug, 2010). Therefore, the researcher appreciates the boundaries of the study and the potential bias attached to the results in the conclusion of the study. 4.4.2 Procedure Before the actual six focus groups were carried out, a pilot focus group was conducted with a convenience sample of six final year business students to ensure consistency in the format, design, layout and structure of the focus group. Importantly, this was also used as an opportunity to confirm the service quality
  45. 45. 45 characteristics used in the focus group (Appendix F), which were taken from the literature (Appendix A and Appendix B) and adapted to this study. Participants also had the opportunity to suggest additional characteristics if they felt that they had not been brought up. Regardless, as Malhotra and Birks (2007) point out, the first focus group should be treated as an experimental group. The intention here was to ascertain whether the procedure worked, how participants reacted, how participants perceived the service quality characteristics and how the moderator dealt with the focus group (Malhotra and Birks, 2007). In essence, the pilot focus group aimed to eliminate any confusion, in an attempt to improve the reliability and validity of each future focus group. Apart from one, each of the other focus groups was carried out in a quiet study room in the John Ryland’s University Library. According to DiCicco-Bloom and Crabtree (2006), it is important to ensure that the environment is familiar and comfortable each time for all participants. Furthermore, Malhotra and Birks (2007) claim that a relaxed, informal atmosphere helps group members to forget that they are being questioned and observed. Finally, each focus group ended by summarising the main points that had been covered and asking participants if this seemed an accurate summary. For each of the main focus groups, each participant was welcomed, given an overview, introduced to key terms (e.g. service quality) and informed of the ground rules (Krueger and Casey, 2009). As group sessions are often unpredictable in terms of the flow of conversation (Silverman, 2006), a topic agenda was utilised to ensure that all of the necessary topics were covered. More specifically, the first part of each focus groups required participants to rate different service quality characteristics based on how important they perceived them to be and how well they performed (Appendix I). The second part of each focus group engaged participants in a lengthy discussion to determine why they had rated characteristics the way they did, as well as asking students to provide suggestions for improving the level of service quality at the university. The researcher was the moderator for each focus group since similar demographics were shared with participants, which allowed the researcher to relate to each of the participants more readily (Krueger and Casey, 2009). Moreover, it is useful for the moderator to have a good understanding of the group so that they can maintain useful conversation and debate when the group is going off topic (Silverman, 2006). Ghauri and Gronhaug (2010) also believe that the moderator is useful for ensuring
  46. 46. 46 that the focus groups remained effective and structured, and should only intervene if the discussion started to stray off topic. Accordingly, the moderator attempted to remain neutral throughout each focus group and recorded the discussion using a dictaphone. As Krueger and Casey (2009) advocate, this was important so that the conversation could be better managed without the need for note taking. 4.4.3 Maintaining Reliability and Validity It was important to be aware biases that could arise throughout the focus group process and therefore crucial to maintain the validity and reliability. According to Ghauri and Gronhaug (2010), validity refers to measures that capture what they are supposed to capture whereas reliability considers the stability of measures. One downside to the use of focus groups for collecting data is that it is very difficult to summarise and categorise information that has been gathered (Ghauri and Gronhaug, 2010), creating the possibility of biased results. In order to enhance the reliability and validity of each focus group, data was collected using a triangulation approach. Saunders et al. (2009) assert that triangulation is the combination or use of two or more different data collection techniques within one study of the same phenomenon. According to Ghauri and Gronhaug (2010), when correctness or precision is important, it is logical to collect information using different methods and angles. With this in mind, a combination of both quantitative and qualitative research techniques was used within each focus group to embrace a triangulated approach to data collection. First of all, the use of a basic quantitative survey (Appendix F) to collect student perceptions was used in each focus group. However, the researcher acknowledged that independently, surveys do not reveal any reasoning behind the responses, commonly providing management with a simple indication and no justification. The overriding purpose of using a survey within the focus group was to encourage discussion. Therefore, the second part of the focus group centred on discussing participants’ ratings from the surveys and also asking them to provide suggestions for university service management. Each discussion was also recorded to allow easier transcription of findings in the analysis. In addition to attempting to triangulate the research procedure, two focus groups were conducted for each year of study, thus repeating the data collection process to ensure consistency and the elimination of potential anomalies. Furthermore, the moderator ensured that each focus group was semi-structured in nature to help
  47. 47. 47 prevent creating bias by unintentionally guiding responses. Despite these attempts to improve reliability, the researcher acknowledges that the data collection process was not perfect and that it could be subject to possible bias (e.g. demographic bias). That said, Krueger and Casey (2006) claim that it is necessary to make trade-offs when selecting participants and that this is acceptable as long as it is taken into account in the analysis of data. 4.5 Data Analysis Techniques It is appropriate to discuss which techniques have been used to analyse data that has been collected. Firstly, mean scores, variances and rankings were calculated for each academic year group based on each of the service quality characteristic (Appendix G). To achieve this, ratings from each participant across both focus groups in each year were combined. Subsequently, Importance-Performance Analysis (IPA) was used to profile the data for each academic year group. IPA is one of the most useful forms of analysis in marketing research, combining information about customer perceptions and importance ratings (Zeithaml et al., 2009). In this instance, IPA was used to link perceptions of importance with perceptions of performance for different service quality characteristics, as perceived by students (Section 5.1). The data were then mapped out onto simple to read matrices that management can use at to establish what service quality characteristics need addressing, which need maintaining and which need de-emphasising. For instance, a characteristic that was perceived extremely important but performed poorly would be considered as a problematic area that management needed to address. Although, students’ perceptions were measured using a scale ranging from 1 - 10 for both the importance (e.g. 1 = Low Importance, 10 = High Importance) and performance (1 = Low Performance, 10 = High Performance) of characteristics, the scale was readjusted during analysis to 4 - 10 to generate a better representation of the findings. The mean results used to plot the data on the IPA matrices did not fall below 4, making it possible to map the data using a shortened scale. This is taken into consideration when interpreting the results in the discussion. It is acknowledged that each IPA matrix, without any further support, does not give management an accurate interpretation of each service quality characteristic. As a result, the recordings from each focus group discussion were transcribed and
  48. 48. 48 organised into key themes that could be used in conjunction to each IPA matrix to provide further evidence for the discussion. This supports the methodological stance of the researcher, incorporating both quantitative and qualitative analysis techniques in the same study to increase the credibility of the findings. 4.6 Ethical Considerations Saunders et al. (2009) point out that ethical concerns can occur at all stages of a research project; when seeking access, during data collection, as data is analysed and when findings are reported. Ethical concerns include protecting the anonymity of participants, honouring all statements and conducting research in a way that does not embarrass or harm the participants (Malhotra and Birks, 2007). Thomas (2004) postulates that it can be difficult to try to avoid ethical problems in marketing research, making it increasingly important to consider ethics throughout the research process. Moreover, Malhotra and Birks (2007), and later Ghauri and Gronhaug (2010), advise that the ethical consideration process should begin during the design stage of the research, since ethics can have a detrimental impact on time and resources if they are only considered at the final stage of the research process. A researcher must take all possible precautions to inform and safeguard each respondent (Ghauri and Gronhaug, 2010). Therefore, to ensure complete ethical consideration, the research was conducted in line with the Data Protection Act (1998), the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) research ethics framework (2010) and the ethical research guidelines provided by the University of Manchester. In particular, the Data Protection Act (1998) was followed to help prevent the invasion of privacy of data held about participants. The act also ensures that personal data must be: processed fairly, obtained for a specific purpose, accurate, kept secure, kept up-to-date and kept no longer than necessary (Saunders et al., 2009). Each participant that was involved in the study was informed about the study’s purpose, procedure and structure at the beginning of each focus group. Silverman (2006) asserts that it is crucial for the participants to be aware of the purpose of the study and how the research will be used to avoid any element of deception. Additionally, Loue (2000) claims that participants must be respected and provided with sufficient privacy and confidentiality to safeguard their interests. Therefore, it was made clear to participants that their involvement was voluntary and that they
  49. 49. 49 retained the right to withdraw from the study at their own discretion. Finally, all participants were ensured that data would remain completely anonymous and that any evidence would be destroyed on completion of the study. 4.7 Chapter Summary As with any methodology, it is common for issues to arise throughout the data collection process. Although the methodology proved to be a very challenging part of the research study due to its unpredictable nature, only minor technological issues were encountered. This chapter has outlined the research plan and methodology used to address the research questions that were proposed in Chapter 3. Firstly, the methodological stance of the researcher was outlined, which influenced the rationale of using focus groups as the primary data collection method. Following this, the data collection process was outlined, describing and explaining the sample, procedure, problems encountered and mechanisms used to maintain validity and reliability throughout the process. Subsequently, the methods used to analyse the data were considered and issues associated with the analysis were highlighted and justified. Finally, important ethical issues relating to the study were considered, whilst listing the techniques and procedures used to ensure the study remained within suitable ethical boundaries.
  50. 50. 50 5. Discussion 5.1 Introduction The purpose of this chapter is to analyse and discuss findings simultaneously, allowing coherent presentation and interpretation of the results. It is logical to adopt such an approach, as the discussion of results that follow the analysis is key in understanding the findings at each stage. This allows each of the research questions proposed in Chapter 3 to be answered more succinctly than if the chapters were separated. In doing so, the discussion attempts to compare and contrast findings with the relevant literature that was reviewed in Chapter 2, as well as identifying aspects that are absent from the current scholarly literature. The discussion is divided into four sections, namely, the Importance and Performance of Service Quality Characteristics (Section 5.2), Importance- Performance Analysis and Problematic Areas (Section 5.3), Differences between Students’ Perceptions of Service Quality (Section 5.4), and Suggestions for University Service Management (Section 5.5). The first three sections place emphasis on tackling research question one and two, while the final section focuses on research question three, bringing in elements from the first three sections to support each suggestion proposed to university service management. 5.2 The Importance and Performance of Service Quality Characteristics 5.2.1 Overview This section focuses on research question one, determining what students perceived to be the most important and best performing service quality characteristics, in order to understand the current provision of service quality at the university. Baron et al. (2009) provide support for the need to tackle this question, arguing that a good starting point for service managers is to determine the level of quality that the organisation should provide for different aspects of the service. In general, the findings indicate that both importance and performance ratings for different characteristics of service quality vary amongst students. In many instances, the findings indicate that variances exist between students’ perceptions of the same
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