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Considerations for quality assurance in research

Research assessment practices are becoming more accurate, transparent and responsible. This is partly due to the sharp increase in external evaluations of universities that lead to internal evaluation processes. EUA expert Tia Loukkola discusses the role of internal quality assurance in research.

With some exceptions, quality assurance developments have been largely focused on the educational mission of universities. There are, however, some examples of national systems where the focus of external quality assurance covers all university activities, including research, and others where research assessment is conducted alongside other accountability processes. Similarly, there is an increasing number of universities developing comprehensive internal quality assurance systems that cover all university activities, including research, as suggested by the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (ESG).

How should we view the links between quality assessment of research and that of other university activities? Could research assessment draw from general quality assurance approaches and vice versa? What should be the balance between quantitative and qualitative approaches to quality assurance?

Different surveys show that after education, research is most covered by internal quality assurance systems. When discussing quality assurance of research, the starting point is typically the key role of academic peer review and research assessment as tools for self-regulation and quality assurance. In 2019, EUA published two reports discussing the status of research assessment from the perspective of how existing policies and practices in this area impact the transition to Open Science, a policy line promoted very strongly at the European level in recent years. These reports – one mapping key actors and concepts related to research assessment, the other focussing on research assessment approaches in European universities – tell an interesting story also from a quality assurance perspective.

The good news arising from the EUA survey is that 89 percent of responding institutions indicated that they have research assessment practices in place and a further nine percent are developing them. Fifty-eight percent of those who had processes in place, indicate that these processes are primarily organised at the institutional level and 32 percent at the faculty or departmental level. This is left to the research unit in only ten percent of the cases. Quality assurance offices were mentioned among the actors involved in organising these activities.

The reports paint a picture of research assessment practices being revised to be more accurate, transparent and responsible. This is partly due to the sharp increase of external evaluations of universities and other research organisations, which has led to the development of internal evaluation processes. They note that there are many different drivers for reconsidering research assessment practices. The experience gained in quality assurance is surely one of those.  

One interesting parallel to quality assurance of education is the discussion on the need to find the right balance between qualitative and quantitative indicators. The survey results show that measures to evaluate academic activities are often limited to evaluating research output with the most important measures being “metrics measuring research output based on number of publications and citations”, “qualitative, peer-review assessment”, “research impact and knowledge transfer indicators” and “metrics measuring collaborations within academia based on co-authorship”. Like in education, the research sector seems to have indicators for quality that are not fully satisfactory and serve as a solution that is more convenient than no solution at all, in particular in light of Open Science.

The survey found that universities considered themselves rather autonomous in defining their research assessment practices and criteria but are, at the same time, very aware of those used by external parties, such as funding bodies and governments. Indeed, when prompted about the kind of existing principles or guidelines the universities used as models for developing their own approach to research assessment, about one-fifth of respondents indicated governmental guidance. Another fifth did not use any existing guidelines and more than one-third used guidelines developed by other universities.

The assessment of research outputs and their academic quality is, however, only one aspect of any internal quality assurance system in research. As important as it is to evaluate past performance, measures to ensure preconditions for good quality research also in the future are pivotal. In this regard, an increasing number of universities formulate strategic priorities for research, invest in developing research infrastructures and supporting services for research and researchers. The recruitment of competent staff and ensuring their further development is another key component of assuring quality in research. Measures to uphold research integrity and ethics in line with respective disciplinary practices are established. All these aspects are difficult to capture with just quantitative metrics.

These are just few examples of what internal quality assurance in research can consist of. While these may be self-evident for most universities, the demand for demonstrating the value added and quality of university research is increasing and it is time to make these processes and efforts more explicit, consistent and transparent for the public. In this work, the role of institutional leadership in framing these actions is as important as finding the right balance between quantitative and qualitative indicators.

EUA has long encouraged universities to take a comprehensive approach to their internal quality assurance and stresses that quality assurance should be enhancement-oriented and contextually sensitive. This applies to all three university missions, even research.

“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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