Purpose: This paper aims to present an in-depth case study with student perceptions of service quality, discussing the relevance of these perceptions for the important issue of quality improvement in higher education. Design/methodology/approach: The paper presents institutional research carried out in a multi-campus system in Spain made up of institutions coming from different quality cultures. The research adopts the model of the deficiencies in service quality approach, adapting it to the construction of a questionnaire, which was answered by final year students in all the university campuses. Findings: Comparative results between campuses and evolution in time of some meaningful variables are presented to illustrate the method's potentialities. A characterization of the main traits of the students' perceptions of service quality obtained from the data resulted in a profile of the single campuses and for the whole system. This profile is interesting in terms of ascertaining meaningful dimensions of the university brand. Practical implications: Examples of practical implications for the campuses where the process was implemented are presented to illustrate the importance of some findings for quality improvement policies. This approach can be easily applied in other institutions. Originality/value: Discussion of some meaningful findings illustrates the value of this methodology for other higher educational systems interested in service quality and continuous quality improvement. The study provides a questionnaire, an implicit methodology and rationale.