Systems designed to ensure that teaching and student learning are of a suitable quality are a feature of universities globally. Quality assurance systems are central to attempts to internationalise higher education, motivated in part by a concern for greater global equality. Yet, if such systems incorporate comparisons, the tendency is to reflect and reproduce inequalities in higher education. Highlighting the European context, we argue that, if higher education is to play a part in tackling social inequalities, we must seek alternative methods to explore pedagogic quality in institutional settings. The sociologist Basil Bernstein’s concepts of classification and framing provide an illustration of the potential of sociologically informed, qualitative approaches for exploring and improving higher education pedagogy and also for addressing social justice issues: these two concepts are used to analyse documentation about undergraduate sociology in two universities that have quite different reputations within the English and Northern Irish higher education system.