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European quality assurance framework: Why all the attention?

The Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (ESG) have led to major developments, however there are now proposals for revisions. EUA expert Tia Loukkola looks into what is behind these calls and offers examples that highlight the flexibility of the ESG as a key success factor.

Recently it has been a rare occurrence to attend an (online) event without someone proposing to revise the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (ESG). Where do these calls for revision come from? To what extent are they really linked to the ESG themselves? The answers are as multiple as the calls for revision and, importantly, they do not go the same direction.

The first thing to be noted is that the ESG are, to a certain extent, victims of their own success. As shown by various editions of the Bologna Implementation Reports, the ESG have led to the major developments in quality assurance in the European Higher Education Area. The establishment of European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education (EQAR) and the expectation for all quality assurance agencies to demonstrate their compliance with the ESG, has meant that the agencies seek to ensure that external quality assurance is in compliance with the ESG. As such, they also guide the work of all European higher education institutions, because to comply with the ESG an agency has to verify that institutional quality assurance processes are in line with the ESG. This structure means that what is written in the ESG matters.

The first edition of the ESG was adopted in 2005 and the current edition dates from 2015. So, they have been around for a while now and when it comes to external quality assurance, the 2015 edition did not include major reforms for external quality assurance. Against this backdrop, one key driver for calls for revision is that many higher education systems and institutions have rather mature quality assurance systems and they seek to ensure that they are fit for purpose and have impact through innovation and refreshing. This is clear from a paper that led to discussions about the revision among the quality assurance agencies last autumn.

But are the expectations of the ESG really stopping reform or is the real issue somewhere else entirely? Let us look at three examples.

Quality assurance is often brought up as a challenge for the European University Initiative alliances. Quite often closer examination shows that this is due to diverging interpretations of the ESG or different national requirements for study programmes, in addition to those outlined in the ESG. In these cases, it would be sufficient to have a proper implementation of the European approach for quality assurance of joint programmes, which is based on the ESG and was adopted in 2015 by the ministers responsible for higher education in the European Higher Education Area. Further, the project Developing a European Approach for Comprehensive QA of (European) University Networks (EUniQ) is currently piloting evaluations that are largely based on the ESG.

Another context where the applicability of the ESG has been discussed is that of micro-credentials. In this regard, a study just published by the Microbol project consortium shows that the ESG are applicable to these new credentials and short study courses, which are developed in response to  the need for upskilling and reskilling the labour force on the one hand, and the emphasis on student-centred learning and need for flexible learning paths on the other. It notes that in the quality assurance of micro-credentials there may be additional considerations beyond the ESG, that the project will explore in the next stages. But the study also points to the importance of using the same quality assurance principles across the board in higher education, because of the learner potentially using the micro-credential towards a conventional qualification.

The latest example is the applicability of the ESG principles in times of Covid-19. Putting aside the applicability of the ESG for online learning, another question is whether the expectations set by the ESG towards the external quality assurance processes can be met during the crisis. In this regard, EQAR and the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA) were both quick to react in the spring of 2020 pointing out the flexibility that the standards offer. For example, while the ESG expect external quality assurance to be carried out on a cyclical basis, they do not stipulate the length of the cycle. This is usually defined by national regulations. This means that agencies could postpone processes without jeopardising their compliance with the ESG. Similarly, the ESG set out a general expectation of site visits as part of an external quality assurance exercise, but they not read that it needs to be a physical one. This leaves room for experimenting with online site visits, which many agencies have been doing.

As these examples show, the ESG allow ample room for interpretation and are adaptable to diverse contexts. This is how they were designed and such flexibility remains one of their key success factors. The trick is to take advantage of this room for manoeuvre so to ensure that quality assurance remains relevant and to do this through cross-stakeholder collaboration. This is one of the key messages of a joint statement the E4 Group (ENQA, EUA, EURASHE and ESU) issued in August.

“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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