Quality assurance

Guiding principles to follow in your department or unit

The Canadian Association for Graduate Studies (CAGS) conducts national research on graduate education. CAGS asserts among its guiding principles that supervision should begin early with well-defined expectations and be continuous. It should involve responsible and communicative students, supervisors, and committee members whose concerns are professional and intellectual.


In more detail, CAGS offers these Guiding principles for graduate student supervision.

  1. A supervisor should be identified in a timely fashion.

  2. Supervisory committees or equivalents should be established early.

  3. Expectations, roles and responsibilities of graduate students and supervisors should be made clear.

  4. Supervisors should be readily accessible to their students, and regular monitoring and feedback should be ensured.

  5. Student-supervisor relationships should be professional.

  6. Intellectual debate and challenge should be encouraged and supported.

  7. Supervisors should be mentors.

  8. Issues of intellectual property and authorship should be made clear.

  9. Conflicts should be resolved at the lowest level possible.

  10. Continuity is important in graduate supervision.

  11. Alternative supervision should be available.

  12. Students have substantial responsibilities for managing their own graduate education.

Individuals can use similar processes to assess their own practice, but quality assurance of graduate supervision at McGill involves the monitoring of performance at an institutional level.

McGill adheres to the framework established by the Bureau de coopération interuniversitaire (BCI). Cyclical academic unit reviews are performed within the University, but the process is overseen by BCI's Program Evaluation Review Commission (CVEP), and new programs are reviewed by the New Program Evaluation Commission (CEP).

McGill is also a member institution of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC). All member institutions pledge their commitment to the AUCC principles of institutional quality assurance in Canadian higher education.

Who "owns" higher education?

In Canada, jurisdiction over universities is provincial, but this fact tells only part of the story. In an increasingly globalized world, Canadian universities, like their counterparts elsewhere, are offering academic programs to a wide variety of international students, and academics are similarly mobile. Quality assurance has become increasingly international, partly as a result of major social and geopolitical changes.


Increasing social and government expectations for assurance of the quality of higher education is an international phenomenon. Quality assurance raises the issue of who owns higher education, especially given the amount of public funds supporting universities. In 2007, the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC) declared that provincial governments "are responsible for assuring themselves and the public that appropriate forms of quality assurance are in place in all degree-granting institutions" (Ministerial statement, p. 2).

Provincial government and its jurisdiction over education in Canada, however, does not change the fact that universities today are global institutions. Government intervention in higher education is associated with a shifting perception of higher education and research training, where it is now seen as an important source of economic growth in what have become knowledge-based economies. In the new knowledge-based economy, graduate students and faculty are increasingly part of large, international networks, working in collaborative partnerships requiring a global skillset and information literacy across a variety of platforms.

One answer to the debate about quality

Although quality can be an ambiguous term, international experts in graduate education indicate various criteria of quality, such as a focus on learning, training, and professional development; practices of assessment that the public can recognize and approve; and academic programs that monitor students' progress, ensure the quality of their written work, and expose them to interdisciplinary research.


Marsh, Rowe, and Martin (2002) argue that the criteria should not be merely countable but should reflect the functional effectiveness of the measured quality (e.g., the quality of teaching or, by extension, supervision). They state that the evaluation of teaching motivates teachers to improve their practices and that the same is true for supervisors, and that evaluations by students can thereby be a criterion of quality.

Researchers continue to debate the definition of quality, quality assurance, and quality assessment, particularly the question of whether quality defines a minimum standard or a standard of excellence (Stewart, 2011). Responding to the debate, international collaboration has produced 10 principles and practices for assessing quality (CGS, 2011).

10 principles and practices to for assessing quality

  • Quality assessment should be focused on the student or postdoctoral fellow's learning, training, and professional development.
  • Stakeholders beyond the university should be assured of quality by the practices of assessment within universities.
  • Quality should be measured based on clearly defined criteria.
  • Criteria of quality in academic programs should include:
    • monitoring of progress through the degree;
    • quality of the dissertation or thesis;
    • exposure to interdisciplinary and global research experiences;
    • skills for generating and communicating research;
    • quality of the research training environment; and
    • research impact.
  • Academic staff should design and refine evaluation procedures.
  • Internal and external reviews should be regular.
  • More attention should be drawn to professional and transferable skills.
  • The increasingly globalized 21st century demands international collaboration on assessing quality.
  • Future assessment depends on refining existing tools and developing new methodologies.
  • National and regional groups of university leaders can use their events to share best practices.

Many but not all of these items were first proposed at an inaugural international conference on graduate education at Banff in 2007, where international representatives of graduate education, including the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies, agreed on the basic principles. Below are the principles provided by the Council of Graduate Schools website that are not reflected in the 2011 document.

  • Respect and learn from the differences in programs and their modes of delivery directed towards our common goal.
  • Encourage innovation in programs and graduates.
  • Clarify and strengthen the role of the Master's degree.
  • Review and understand the global flow of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows (early stage researchers).


Canadian Association of Graduate Studies [CAGS] (2008). Guiding principles for graduate student supervision.

Council of Graduate Schools [CGS] (2011). Principles and practices for assessing the quality of (post)-graduate education and research training. Global perspectives on measuring quality: Proceedings of the 2010 Strategic Leaders Global Summit on Graduate Education. Council of Graduate Schools: Washington.

Council of Ministers of Education, Canada. (2007). Ministerial statement on quality assurance of degree education in Canada.

Marsh, H., Rowe, K., & Martin, A. (2002). PhD students' evaluations of research supervision. The Journal of Higher Education, 73, 313-348

Stewart, D. (2011). Measuring quailty in graduate education and research training. Global perspectives on measuring quality: Proceedings of the 2010 Strategic Leaders Global Summit on Graduate Education. Council of Graduate Schools: Washington.

Further Reading

Green, H., & Powell, S. (2005). Doctoral study in contemporary higher education. Maidenhead: SHRE and Open University Press.