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Quality Assurance

1. Introduction

Quality is a multidimensional concept that touches upon not only quality assurance (QA) procedures, but also accessibility, employability, academic freedom, public responsibility for Higher Education (HE) and mobility (Galán Palomares et al., 2013). Quality assurance itself serves multiple purposes, enhancing teaching and learning, building trust among the stakeholders throughout the HE systems and increasing harmonisation and comparability in EHEA (ESU 2014).

Promotion of development of European QA has been laid as a foundation for the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) by its establishment (Bologna Declaration, 1999) and remains a key action line for the purpose of development of EHEA (Conference of Ministers Responsible for Higher Education 2001). The subsequent Communiques have set the guidelines for positive developments in terms of QA frameworks, also with regard to student participation (Conference of Ministers Responsible for Higher Education 2003).

The European Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance (ESG) in EHEA adopted in Bergen have been become a basis for the European reference for quality assurance on national levels (Conference of Ministers Responsible for Higher Education 2005). Following the commitments from Bucharest ESG have been revised by the E4 group (ESU, ENQA, EUA and EURASHE in cooperation with EI, BUSINESSEUROPE and EQAR) and endorsed by the Bologna Follow‐Up Groups (BFUG) (Conference of Ministers Responsible for Higher Education 2012). ESG, since its adoption, have been a powerful drive for change in QA (Conference of Ministers Responsible for Higher Education 2007) and the revised version proposed is clearer and addresses current changes within the EHEA.

2. Main findings

The Purpose of QA

QA serves multiple purposes, through the BWSE survey the authors of this chapter wanted to identify what purposes are identified on national levels as a starting point for the analysis of Quality‐related issues within HE. Out of 39 NUSes 28 stated that QA means for them enhancing study conditions and 27 said that QA should provide transparency and better information provision. More than half of the unions also recognised QA as a tool for either holding the HEIs accountable (23 out of 39 respondents) or a tool for public control of the HE (22 out of 39 respondents). The latter purpose was equally popular to the QA’s aim as a tool to improve recognition processes (22 out of 39 NUSes). Some of the NUSes also emphasised the purpose of building trust within the HE systems (17 out of 39), boosting employability (11 out of 39) and promoting mobility (11 out of 39).

Interestingly enough, there has been also a negative purpose of the QA identified by the NUS from Switzerland (VSS‐UNES‐USU): We feel that it is often, but not always, used as a tool to promote commodification, and (...) it should definitely not be like that.

QA procedures

QA procedures vary across the EHEA with the clear majority of the countries (21 out of 38 respondents) conducting programme and institutional accreditation in any combination. Six unions from five countries (Belgium (French Community), Finland, Luxembourg, Macedonia and Malta) stated that for them the institutional evaluation is the main focus whereas in only 3 countries (Denmark, Armenia, Slovenia) QA procedures are centered on institutional accreditation. Another 3 countries, (Bulgaria, Czech Republic and Spain) are examples of programme accreditation only.

The results of the survey shows that some of the QA procedures do not follow standardised models. The United Kingdom developed a system of institutional assurance and enhancement that might be a good example of procedures designed to improve the quality of HEIs. In Switzerland only certain programmes have to be accredited alongside the institutional accreditation and there are some countries that have no focuses within QA procedures at all (Iceland).

What is more important, however, is the influence of Bologna Process reforms on QA in the countries. According to the majority of our respondents, no changes have occurred in the focuses of QA procedures in their countries (22 out of 39 respondents). 16 out of 39 respondents have declared various transformations that have been made in the countries over the past 5 years, but only 5 have admitted to be satisfied with them. Swiss NUS described new procedures of the external institutional accreditation as more efficient and trustworthy or Ukrainian union, which stated that they warmly welcomed the new system as they played a significant role designing it.

Both unions from the Netherlands have said that the institutional accreditation has been introduced from 2011 on. A shift from programme accreditation towards the institutional and programme accreditation have started in Italy in 2013 and in Belgium (Flemish Community) in 2015. In Germany and Slovenia on the other hand there have been a switch to focus on institutional accreditation. Here, the unions seem to be rather concerned about the changing situation. Dutch unions have stated that it will lead to prospective abolishment of programme accreditation, Italian representatives commented that the system’s goal is (...) to evaluate the universities to divide them in ‘good ones’ (to award) and ‘bad ones’ (to punish) and Belgian NUS (Flemish Community) pointed out that the transparency will suffer. Both German and Slovenian unions have drawn the attention to financial aspects of the institutional accreditation being an austerity measure.

Student Participation in QA

Internal QA processes

Only one out of 39 respondents of the BWSE survey have stated that students in their country do not take part in the internal QA processes ‐ it was Belarus. The rest of the respondents (38) have declared to be involved, though, in different ways. The majority (29 out of 38 respondents) have admitted to be involved as a source of information (filling in the questionnaires, being part of focus groups, etc.), but barely one‐third (10 out of 38) of NUSes takes active part in the follow‐up process ‐ drafting and implementing the recommendations. Additionally, a significant number of unions (26 out of 38) are formally involved as full members in the bodies of internal assessment processes.

External QA processes

In external quality assurance the situation slightly differs. 4 out of 38 respondents have declared that students in their country do not take part in the external QA processes ‐ Belarus, Luxembourg, Malta and Italy. 33 respondents have declared to be involved in different ways. The majority, 29 out of 34 national students’ unions, are involved as full members in the external review panels, and in the case of 3 countries, Lithuania, the United Kingdom and Armenia it is possible for student to act as a chair/secretary of the external panel review. Additionally, 23 out of 34 NUSes have said that students are mainly information source (as in interview during external reviews, etc.).

QA governance

According to BWSE survey Belarus, Bulgaria, Latvia and Luxembourg have no QA agency. In the rest of the countries, 28 out of 34 NUSes have stated that they take an active part in the governance of the QA agencies, whereas 6 out 34 respondents admitted not to. Again, the majority of the the unions (22 out of 28) are acting as full members within the governance (decision‐making) bodies and the 11 of the respondents (28) as members of consultative bodies. Only 5 unions (out of 28) are also playing the role of planners of the evaluation/accreditation programmes in Austria, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland and Spain.

Our study proves that the majority of the students are consulted by the governments on QA issues by their governments across the EHEA (22 out of 38 unions). For 9 out 22 NUSes formal involvement in the QA bodies or groups on ministerial level allows the authorities to consult them (e.g. Finland, France and Croatia), 3 other unions have said that they participate in various meetings with the Ministry to discuss current issues and express their opinions (Sweden, Belgium (Flemish Community) and Poland). However, there are still 11 unions, from Serbia (both of the unions), Macedonia, Malta, Lithuania, Armenia, Iceland, Slovenia, Italy, France (La Fage ‐ one of two French NUSes) and Spain that are not consulted by their governments about the QA related issues.

QA experts’ pools

In twenty‐one countries there exists a specific QA experts’ pool where students are included. In 8 cases it is fully operated by the NUSes (e.g. Ireland, Switzerland and Romania), in 8 countries it is operated by the QA agencies (e.g. Croatia, Iceland and the United Kingdom), and in 5 the combination of QA agency and the NUS has governance over the pool (e.g. Armenia, Poland and Slovenia). Interestingly enough, Germany constitutes an example of a country falling out of the standardised models, where students set up the experts’ pool on their own and their govern them, similarly to the ESU’s QA experts’ pool. The pool in the vast majority of the countries (20 out of 21) is widely used by the QA agencies, HEIs and other institutions for the purposes of the QA procedures and beyond. According to ESU’s members France constitutes the only exception.

Obstacles to student involvement in QA

Another aim for the BWSE survey was to learn about students’ perception on obstacles to their involvement in QA‐related issues in the national context. Unfortunately, the unions define a significant amount of barriers that exclude students from getting involved, especially on grassroot, or local levels.

The three main obstacles include: insufficient information provisions and training, extended bureaucracy and not treating students as equal partners in the processes. Out of 38 respondents 26 have declared that there is a lack of information about QA among the student body. The NUS UK has pointed out that the processes are bureaucratic and require advanced level of knowledge about QA. This means that only students who are in the know, or can access the right support are really able to fully involved.

Consequently, more than half of the unions (17) emphasised the need for further training for student representatives, so they feel confident and can fully participate in the QA processes.. 22 out of 38 unions have stated that students regard QA is useless due to the lack of consequences afterwards. The NUSes from Austria and Croatia emphasised intransparency of the process and poor follow up and monitoring process. More than one‐third of the unions (14) sees the QA processes are not transparent enough in their countries and the reports are not published in a clear and accessible way. Over half of the respondents (21 out of 38) have stated that students are still not treated as equal partners and members within the QA structures. Respondents have pointed out that selection and nomination procedures are not transparent (8 out of 38 NUSes) and furthermore student involvement is often limited to participation instead of meaningful participation (3 out of 38 respondents).

Revised ESG for QA

The ESG have become a basis for the European dimension of QA. They set up, promote and advance a set of principle universally applicable, regardless the national context. According to ESU’s NUSes most of the countries are familiar with ESG and are taking them into account, however the level of engagement in using ESG in the QA differs throughout the EHEA. For the majority of governments and QA agencies ESG are known and are mostly or somewhat taken into account in terms of setting up and reforming of national frameworks and influencing the work of QA agencies (26 out of 38 ‐ national level, 34 out of 38 ‐ QA agencies). However, there are still examples of the countries (e.g. Armenia, Switzerland, Italy) where our respondents have stated that despite being aware of the document, there is reluctance in applying them on national or QA agency level.

The situation on institutional level looks very similar. 26 respondents have stated that ESG are known and are mostly or somewhat taken into account, but 4 NUSes from Armenia, Germany, France and Serbia have declared that ESG are not known at all and therefore cannot be taken into account.

The majority of the NUSes are aware of the existence of ESG and they are using the document in their QA work in more than two‐thirds of the countries (29 out of 35 respondents). The majority of the NUSes have admitted that the local students’ unions have quite a limited knowledge about the ESG. 18 out of 34 respondents have stated that the local students’ union level is unfamiliar with the ESG and therefore they are not taken into account in their work.

The revised version of the ESG that is to be endorsed by the Ministers during the Conference in Yerevan is very well or well known for more than a half of our respondents (7 and 14 out of 38, respectively). None of the respondents has admitted to have negative opinion about the revised ESG. Most of the NUSes see the changes in a positive or very positive way (23 out of 38 respondents).

European Quality Assurance Register (EQAR)

Most of the NUSes fully or partially agree with the existence of the European Register of the QA Agencies operating according to the ESG (29 out of 37 respondents). Almost half of the NUSes that took part in the BWSE survey agree with operating of foreign QA agencies in their countries under the condition of the decision being recognised by the national agency (17 out of 38 respondents), whereas 6 of the unions have stated that the decision should be automatically recognised. Four unions have said that foreign agencies should be allowed to operate only if there is no QA agency in the country and other 4 would set additional requirements. Unions from Denmark, Hungary, Luxembourg and the UK do not see any need for operating foreign QA agencies in the ir countries.

The impact EQAR has made from the point of its establishment had multiple directions. The BWSE survey aimed at discovering how the NUSes perceive this impact. The majority of the unions identify EQAR with enforcing the ESG (19 out of 31 respondents) and increased the transparency of the quality of higher education for students (13 out of 31). Additionally, the unions have stated that the Register has opened national QA systems for agencies from abroad (10 out of 31 respondents) allowing the improvement of procedures and exchange of information. 9 unions believe that it has given the opportunity for the HEIs to choose any agency from EQAR that would review the institutions or/and programmes and 3 of them that in enabled the creation of QA market.

The majority of NUSes see the possibility for development of EQAR by, for example, supporting the database of the official study programmes offered across the EHEA (28 out of 38 unions). It would increase the transparency by providing information about quality‐assured higher education provision.

3. Conclusions and considerations for the future

As quality itself is a multidimensional concept QA in the view of the NUSes serves multiple purposes. The primary ones are generally perceived as enhancing the study conditions and providing transparent information. Additionally, unions have identified that QA is a tool to hold the HEIs accountable, for public control, to improve recognition processes, building up the trust within the HE systems, boosting employability and promoting mobility.

The focus of QA procedures varies across the EHEA. In In the majority of the countries a combination of programme and institutional accreditation have been used, but also there are examples of institutional or programme accreditation or institutional evaluation only. Some of the unions have stated that the procedures used in their countries do not follow standardised models, such as accreditation of only selected programmes is performed (Switzerland) or the system of institutional assurance and enhancement is used (the UK).

In less than one‐third of the responding countries QA reforms have been introduced over the past 5 years, however most of the unions have stated that they are concerned about the direction of the changes. Having analysed the results the authors have noticed that countries have been sometimes using the reforms to justify the budget cuts or limit the transparency.

Meaningful participation of students in QA at all levels has slightly increased and several countries had or have developed specific experts’ pool where students are included. However, there is a lack of information about QA among the student body and students generally believe that these processes are not useful because there are not any visible consequences perceived by them. Additionally, as the biggest obstacles to involvement in QA, respondents have identified not treating students as equal and competent partners and not providing enough training for the students bodies.

The purpose of the ESG is rather well known across the countries and the revised version of the document ESG received a warm welcome from the students, especially due to the student‐centered learning standard. However, now a special attention has to be drawn to the implementation of the revised ESG and their usage in the countries across the EHEA.

The NUSes are rather familiar with the concept and impact of EQAR and most of them would support its further development. For instance, creating an online tool for providing information about quality‐assured higher education provision in EHEA. There is still the question of how far the integration within the EHEA should go to allow the foreign QA agencies to operate in the countries on equal right to the national ones.

4. Recommendations

Quality Assurance must continue to be a priority for higher education systems in order to remove obstacles to take up, pursue with and successfully complete degrees. It has to ensure academic freedom, integration of teaching, learning and research as well as prepare students for being active citizens in the future without excluding any of the groups within the society. Therefore the following recommendations have to be find their realisation in the future of the EHEA towards the next Ministerial Conference in 2018.

● Quality Assurance systems should be based on the principles and values of trust, participation and ownership of stakeholders and a drive for real improvement.

● The internal QA should embrace evaluating and monitoring all of education activities within a HEI. The reports from the evaluation have to be accessible for students, other stakeholders and wider public and include the recommendations that should serve for the action plans for future improvement. HEIs need to make sure that the progress in monitored.

● Independent QA agencies have to be established in every country across the EHEA to provide the complementary reviews and support HEIs in enhancing quality on institutional and programme level. The autonomous responsibility for their operations should ensure non‐political character of the conclusions and recommendations.

● The meaningful representation of students is a must in the QA. Students have to be recognised as competent and equal partners and act as full members in the decision‐making bodies of internal and external QA.

● It is essential that the revised version of the European Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance (ESG) in the EHEA are rapidly implemented in cooperation with national stakeholders. The student‐centered learning standard is of an utmost importance and the countries across the EHEA should strive for full transformation of the national provisions to execute this standard in practice while carrying out the reviews with full and meaningful engagement of students.

● The possibilities for further development of EQAR should be explored in order to provide information about quality‐assured higher education provision in EHEA. This could achieved, for instance, by establishing a database of official degrees and study programmes offered within EHEA.

5. References

Bologna Declaration (1999). Joint declaration of the European Ministers of Education convened in Bologna on 19 June 1999.

Conference of Ministers Responsible for Higher Education (2001). Towards the European Higher Education Area.

Communiqué of the Conference of Ministers responsible for Higher Education in Prague on May 19, 2001.(external link)

Conference of ministers responsible for Higher Education (2003). “Towards the European Higher Education Area: Realising the European Higher Education Area. Communiqué of the Conference of ministers responsible
for higher Education in Berlin on September 19, 2003”.

Conference of Ministers Responsible for Higher Education (2005). The European Higher Education Area—Achieving the Goals Communiqué of the Conference of European Ministers Responsible for Higher Education, Bergen, 19–20 May 2005.

Conference of Ministers Responsible for Higher Education (2007). London Communiqué.
Towards the European Higher Education Area: Responding to Challenges in a Globalized World.

Conference of Ministers Responsible for Higher Education (2012). Making the Most of Our Potential:Consolidating the European Higher Education Area. Bucharest Communiqué.(external link)]

European Students' Union (ESU) (2014). Policy Paper on Quality of Higher Education(external link)

Galán Palomares, F., K. Aigus, J. Jungblut, B. Todorovski, A. Kazoka, H. Saarela (2013). Quest for Quality for Students: Student Quality Concept. European Students’ Union: Brussels.