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Can quality assurance support universities in becoming engines of innovation?

A recent EUA study stresses that contributing to innovation in society is a central mission of today’s higher education institutions. EUA’s Tia Loukkola examines the role of quality assurance in this area, as well as the type of quality assurance needed to ensure that universities are fulfilling this task.

One key message of a recent EUA study on the role of universities in innovation ecosystems is that contributing to innovation in society is a central mission of today’s higher education institutions. Another message is that the most crucial contribution of universities to this end is to produce graduates that have the right skills and competencies for diverse roles in society.

Typically, one would expect quality assurance to ensure that universities are fulfilling this task, which then raises the question of what kind of quality assurance is needed to do this.

One of the characteristics of the innovation discourse, particularly when talking about start-ups and disruptive innovation, is the acceptance of failure: In a “high-risk high-reward” logic, failure is seen as proof that activities are really happening at the cutting edge, and the ability to fail and learn from failure is a key component of the entrepreneurial spirit in learning environments.

Against this backdrop, the recommendations of another EUA report, dating back already a decade and examining how quality assurance promotes innovative practices and creativity within universities, and thus entrepreneurship, can be of interest. Beyond calling for internal and external quality assurance processes that are context-sensitive and geared towards a developmental approach, the report emphasises the need for quality assurance – and a quality culture – in which failure is broadly accepted, perhaps more so than we are normally used to.

The report suggests that “internal quality assurance processes should be able to identify failures and define the process through which the institution reacts and rectifies the situation when a failure has taken place, rather than prohibit risk taking altogether. For its part, external quality assurance should aim at checking if a higher education institution is capable of reacting to abnormal circumstances rather than sanctioning occasional failures.”

More specifically, depending on the approach to internal quality assurance, a university may foster its innovation culture differently.

Where quality assurance is focused on defining and assessing learning outcomes and ensuring that they are aligned to the national qualification framework, quality assurance processes should ensure that graduates have entrepreneurial, leadership and digital skills. The report on regional ecosystems proposes that these should be delivered through interdisciplinary approaches, project-based learning, student preparedness to disruption and self-organised student activities as part of curricula. Narrow, discipline-based learning outcomes, at least, need to be combined with the ability for more general, team-based problem solving.

Another approach is aligning quality assurance with strategic management, with a role in supporting the institution in reaching its goals. In this approach, quality assurance should consider two aspects according to the regional ecosystems report. First, universities wanting to promote innovation cannot treat innovation separately but need to incorporate an orientation towards innovation in all their activities. Second, this requires a strategic approach to innovation and the embedding of a culture of innovation within the university. The report therefore finds it important, for example, to align learning and teaching reforms with a university’s role in innovation and investing in teaching innovation services.

It seems fair to admit that, unfortunately, in many cases quality assurance processes currently in place are not always fit to drive innovation, as called for in the innovation ecosystems report. Nevertheless, the case studies in the report are encouraging. As an increasing number of external quality assurance regimes are focused on examining the effectiveness of internal quality assurance systems, one would expect them to allow for more autonomy for universities in designing systems that fit their needs. Where that is the case, one would hope that universities serious about fostering a culture of innovation will also reflect this in the design of their systems.

The topic of how quality assurance supports the societal engagement of higher education institutions will be the topic of the European Quality Assurance Forum (EQAF) in November. Promoting a culture of innovation is part of this engagement and provides a foundation for various institutional initiatives. The call for contributions to be presented during EQAF 2019 is open until 22 July.

“Expert Voices” is an online platform featuring original commentary and analysis on the higher education and research sector in Europe. It offers EUA experts, members and partners the opportunity to share their expertise and perspectives in an interactive and flexible exchange on key topics in the field.

All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA.

Tia Loukkola

Tia Loukkola is the Director of the EUA Institutional Development unit. She is in charge of a variety of EUA’s activities dealing with improving and monitoring the quality of universities and their educational mission, as well as specific topics including quality assurance, recognition, rankings and learning and teaching.

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