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Are our quality assurance methodologies also working for higher education institutions outside of the EHEA?

The European University Association’s Institutional Evaluation Programme (IEP) has outstanding experience in conducting institutional evaluations. Here, our quality assurance experts Elena Cirlan and Maria Kelo reflect on the results of a recent study that looked at the relevance of its methodology for institutions outside of the EHEA, a key consideration among the unique features of the programme.

Through the Institutional Evaluation Progamme (IEP), an independent quality assurance agency, the European University Association supports the development of higher education institutions’ strategic management and internal quality culture. Since its launch in 1994  IEP has carried out more than 440 evaluations in 50 countries, including 12 that are not part of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA). But how well is this working for the latter?

IEP conducts its evaluations in line with the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the EHEA (ESG), the sector’s gold standard, and is therefore listed in the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education (EQAR) and a member of the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA). Considering its longstanding tradition of carrying out evaluations in countries outside of the EHEA, IEP recently published a study that examined the relevance and applicability of IEP methodology and the ESG to higher education institutions in such countries.

The study found that all ESG standards on internal quality assurance (Part 1) are generic enough for, and relevant to, higher education contexts outside of the EHEA. It also found that the ESG encompass universal principles of quality assurance of learning and teaching in higher education that go beyond cultural contexts and different academic traditions. Nonetheless, some elements of the standards referring to specific transparency tools (e.g.  learning outcomes, national qualifications frameworks) or concepts (e.g.  student-centred learning) that have been developed and implemented within the EHEA cannot be fully transferred or directly applied to higher education systems outside of it.

Higher education institutions across the world face similar challenges. Therefore, similar obstacles hinder the fulfilment of the standards laid down in Part 1 of the ESG both within and outside of the EHEA. Among the main ones found by the IEP study were the lack of financial and human resources, limited levels of institutional autonomy, lack of expertise in internal quality assurance and lack of an external quality assurance body, as well as some cultural aspects such as those related to formal student participation in institutional decision-making bodies.

Furthermore, compliance with the standards outlined in Part 1 of the ESG relies greatly on their systematic application. The study’s results show that a systematic approach to internal quality assurance was missing at evaluated institutions outside of the EHEA. This can be explained by the fact that in these systems, internal quality assurance mainly focuses on preparation for external accreditation. However, an evident difference was noted in institutions geographically closer to the EHEA, as often they had collaborated with EHEA quality assurance agencies or developed programmes in collaboration with international institutions and thus applied the ESG in their work in a systematic manner.

The study also examined to what extent the same quality assurance procedures (as described in Part 2 of the ESG) can be applied to evaluations outside of the EHEA. The results show that this is indeed feasible, and that IEP evaluation methodology in fact guarantees this as it is highly suited for evaluations in different cultural contexts. Firstly, IEP methodology is applicable to any higher education institution regardless of its geographical location. Secondly, IEP evaluations address all of the main institutional activity areas (i.e. governance and decision-making, quality culture, teaching and learning, research, service to society and internationalisation), thus going beyond the scope of the ESG, which are specifically focused on the quality assurance of learning and teaching. And finally, as IEP evaluations do not result in a judgement (such as a yes/no decision or grading of compliance), accreditation or ranking, the methodology allows evaluation teams to focus on relevant and useful recommendations for the enhancement of the institution in its own context.

In its almost 30 years of history, IEP has consistently proven its impact and relevance across a wide diversity of systems, countries and institutions, including outside of the EHEA. As IEP is not rooted in any single higher education system, all of its evaluations – whether within the EHEA or further afield - are in fact cross-border evaluations by definition, in that the agency carries out each evaluation untethered to any specific national context. There are several features that make IEP a unique programme: it has a context sensitive methodology that puts a strong emphasis on the self-evaluation phase and focuses on the higher education institution as a whole rather than evaluating individual study programmes or administrative units; IEP evaluations are voluntary and tailored to the profile of each institution; and they are conducted by experienced university leaders from different EHEA countries.

As a quality assurance agency that conducts cross-border institutional evaluations, IEP has an internationalisation philosophy at its core. Besides transferring European standards for quality assurance to other parts of the world, IEP also transfers the knowledge and experience of its well-versed European experts. Indeed, institutions have indicated that the external and European viewpoint is one of their main reasons for signing up for an IEP evaluation.

Registrations for IEP evaluations for the academic year 2022-23 are now open for EHEA and non-EHEA institutions until 3 July 2022.

“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.

Elena Cirlan

Elena Cirlan is a Policy and Project officer in the Institutional Development Unit, where her work focuses mainly on quality assurance in higher education. She contributes to the management of EUA’s Institutional Evaluation Programme (IEP) and to the coordination of the annual European Quality Assurance Forum (EQAF) as well as to the implementation of projects related to quality assurance.

Maria Kelo

Maria Kelo is the director of the Institutional Development Unit at EUA, which focuses on issues related to higher education learning and teaching, recognition and quality assurance.

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