Purpose: vietnam is experiencing rapid expansion in the provision of higher education that requires quality assurance appropriate for the vietnamese-centralised confucian cultural context. This paper aims to examine the concept of quality from the perspectives of academic leaders, quality assurance members and academics at three higher education institutions in vietnam. Design/methodology/approach: based on an interpretative study, semi-structured interviews were used as a major research instrument augmented with document analysis across three case studies. Interviews were conducted with 35 participants from three groups of stakeholders. Findings: the concept of quality was found to be under-conceptualised in this vietnamese context. Quality was conceptualised as meeting societal needs across the case studies underpinned by the belief that the purpose of higher education is to prepare graduates for employment. Research limitations/implications: the study was conducted in similar disciplines at three state-owned universities in vietnam in 2011. This provides insight within this context and timeframe that may not be generalised. It is suggested to extend this research to other disciplines, the private sector and other groups of stakeholders. Practical implications: the paper discusses the necessity of revisiting the philosophy of higher education and re-conceptualising quality in vietnam that informs quality assurance processes that are relevant to the cultural context. Originality/value: this paper provides a centralised confucian perspective to the literature on quality assurance in higher education. How quality is perceived by academic leaders, quality assurance members and, in particular, academic staff can be used to inform policy. In a centralised country such as vietnam, academic leaders and quality assurance members may indicate their obedient attitudes to policies, leading to the same view with what is centrally enacted, while the academic staff have a different perception of quality. 2016, Emerald group publishing limited.