Purpose - The purpose of this paper is to examine the introduction of a quality assurance system in a new, private university in Syria, and considers the extent to which the theoretical model based on institutional theory and isomorphism is reflected in practice. Design/methodology/approach - A five year longitudinal study which reviews the design, implementation and embedding of a quality assurance system was undertaken. The approach reflects on the prevailing practice and adoption of quality assurance systems at key points throughout the existence of the institution. Findings - The findings show that for any organisation or institution which is creating a new model, which is outside the conventional or prevailing models of the sector, there will be multiple challenges. Research limitations/implications - The research was conducted during the many visits made throughout the period, but the changes witnessed to key staff at Kalamoon throughout the five years has impacted on the institutionalisation model, and generated both increased and reduced isomorphic responses from staff at various points in the study. Practical implications - The paper is a useful source of information to any new organisation creating policies and processes which they hope will quickly become embedded within the organisational culture, especially in countries where strong state leadership has been the historical norm. Originality/value - The paper reports on the first private university in Kalamoon, Syria, and the strategies adopted to deliver the quality assurance agenda. In addition, it uses the theoretical approach of institutionalization in a novel manner.