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Cross-border quality assurance: political ideals and national realities

Cross-border quality assurance has been slow in the making over the past two decades. However, as EUA’s Tia Loukkola explains, a new political context in Europe and the launch of new networks and collaboration could bring a much-awaited game changer.

This year the European Commission launched its European Universities Initiative with a bit of fanfare. The initiative aims for selected university networks to develop far-reaching joint governance and collaboration in academic activities. In this context, some networks have already identified nationally based external quality assurance arrangements to be one of the challenges in achieving the networks’ great ambitions.

Coincidentally, this year marks the 25th anniversary of EUA’s Institutional Evaluation Programme (IEP), a European quality assurance agency included in European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education (EQAR), which carries out institutional evaluations across Europe and beyond. IEP was established by EUA’s predecessor organisation, the Association of European Universities (CRE), in response to the European Commission’s plan to set up a European-wide quality assurance agency.

Since then, the idea of a European agency was put aside and almost all European countries have set up national quality assurance agencies. Today, IEP remains an early example of a quality assurance agency offering external quality assurance services across borders, and still one of few that are genuinely not nationally based. The idea of agencies working across borders is nevertheless still alive and well in the European collaboration and integration policy.

When the stakeholder organisations proposed to the ministers for higher education in the  European Higher Education Area (EHEA) to establish EQAR over ten years ago, one of the underpinning aims was that EQAR-registered quality assurance agencies would be recognised throughout the entire EHEA and higher education institutions would be able to choose freely to work with any registered agency. In other words, rather than having one Europe-wide agency, the idea was to have agencies operating across borders according to the same basic principles enshrined in the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (ESG). Since then, European Commission and Bologna Process documents have reiterated this aim, with the latter always emphasising that this must happen while respecting national requirements.

The progress in making cross-border quality assurance mainstream has been slow. According to EQAR website higher education institutions in 18 countries can choose from the EQAR-listed agencies to fulfil their national external quality assurance requirements. But in most of these countries there are important conditions on or restrictions. Twelve other countries recognise the results of foreign quality assurance agencies activities as long as they are carried out in line with their national requirements. And 19 countries do not recognise foreign agencies as part of their national external quality assurance systems.

In line with these framework conditions, EQAR statistics show that the volume of cross-border quality assurance activities carried out by EQAR-listed agencies remains modest. In 2018, the number of cross-border exercises constituted 4,3% of the number of national exercises (366 cross-border vs. 8 533 national activities).

An examination of countries in which agencies operate across borders shows that there are quite a few cases in which the foreign agencies are not recognised as part of the national system. This means the universities have signed up to these on a voluntary basis and in addition to any scrutiny by the national agency.

IEP’s experience shows that when signing up for voluntary evaluations, the institutions are typically looking for a complementary approach to the national one. Often this means looking for international and out-of-the-box insight and requests are driven by the desire to get impetus for improvement or simply external recognition. The IEP experience also shows that voluntary exercises tend to have impact, perhaps precisely due to their voluntary nature.

Indeed, higher education institutions and quality assurance agencies engaging in cross-border quality assurance need to consider why they want to do so and what the benefits are compared to national processes. The importance of clarifying this aspect was noted in “Key Considerations for Cross-Border Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area” prepared by the E4 Group (EUA, ESU, ENQA and EURASHE) in collaboration with EQAR. Because, ultimately just carrying out cross-border quality assurance should not be a value of its own.

The European Universities Initiative may demonstrate and bring added value to cross-border quality assurance. As a result, this may shake up the current status quo whereby there is much room for improvement in taking cross-border quality assurance beyond voluntary evaluations. As such, this political initiative may just surprise us and act as a trigger that leads to a change.

“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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