Can, and should, quality assurance play a greater role in ensuring that common academic values are respected? EUA’s Maria Kelo examines recent debates on the scope of QA in higher education.
Quality assurance is one of the success stories of the Bologna Process. Despite this – or perhaps because of this – there have been significant pressures in recent years to revise the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (the ESG). These pressures relate to extending the ESG’s scope to issues that have made their way into the higher education policy agenda: environmental sustainability, the social dimension of higher education, and the protection of academic values. But can QA in higher education be a panacea? And if it can, should it? Is it QA’s job to exert pressure for the implementation of such policy goals and to monitor their implementation across Europe? Discussions about the role of QA in monitoring and ensuring the respect of a common set of academic values, e.g. academic freedom, academic integrity, institutional autonomy, student participation, and public responsibility for and of higher education, within the EHEA are particularly interesting and complex. Indeed, QA and values was also the theme of the European Quality Assurance Forum (EQAF) 2022, where a number of presenters addressed the topic from theoretical and practical angles.
Naturally, the question is not whether the European QA community supports and respects these values. Indeed, they are all integrated into the European QA framework and the ESG, whether implicitly, as foundational principles, or explicitly within the standards and their guidelines.
Academic freedom and integrity are explicitly mentioned the ESG’s first standard (1.1), which also states that institutional QA policy should be vigilant towards fraud, intolerance, and discrimination. In line with one of the key principles of the European QA framework, namely that the primary responsibility for quality and its assurance lies with the institutions, the guidelines that accompany this standard add that “how the policy is implemented, monitored and revised is the institution’s decision.” In addition, putting in place processes for the quality and integrity of agencies' own activities are covered in standard 3.6.
Institutional autonomy and the independence of quality assurance agencies are the basic pillars of the European QA framework. Standard 3.3 is dedicated entirely to the independence of QA agencies in their operations and decision making, “without any undue influence of any third parties”. To be considered ESG compliant, and thus eligible to be registered in the European QA Register (EQAR), agencies must demonstrate their independence. The ESG underline the importance of agencies’ independence as “autonomous institutions need independent agencies as their counterparts”. So, while there are no specific standards on the autonomy of institutions, the concept is present and taken as a fundamental underlying assumption.
Furthermore, the entire European QA framework is built on stakeholder participation. Processes are carried out by representatives of different stakeholder groups and decisions are made by groups of diverse stakeholders, not to mention that the standards themselves were written by European level stakeholder bodies. Mandatory student participation is explicit in all QA processes, both internal and external.
Therefore, shared academic values are indeed included in the European QA framework, whether explicitly or implicitly. But is this enough? Has the world changed to such an extent that we can no longer take for granted much of what we once did? Academic values do appear to be under more severe threat than before. But what can and should quality assurance do to help protect these values? Is it possible to translate values into indicators that can be objectively measured and evaluated, while maintaining a qualitative approach?
Many methodological issues are bound to arise if QA processes incorporate the monitoring of values. Beyond the complications in developing appropriate indicators, the QA methodologies currently in use may need to be revised. A more fundamental question also arises: whose responsibility is it to ensure that academic values are respected, both at institutional and national level? EUA believes that it should be everyone’s responsibility: individual academics, institutional leadership, and national authorities for higher education. In addition, there is a risk that putting the bulk of the burden on QA agencies may lead to the de-responsibilisation of other actors. Quality assurance operates within national and institutional policies and regulations and can do little without their support. Some may argue that in systems with restricted academic freedom, agencies may be similarly restricted and thus unable to give an independent assessment. On the other hand, in several countries, other methods and entities are charged with monitoring and protecting the different values, such as ombudsmen, institutional governance audits and legal protection measures.
For the future of the European QA framework and the ESG, the question is not only what QA can or should do, but what needs to be regulated at European level, i.e. what should be included in the ESG. Each system is free to go beyond the ESG, as each context has its own priorities, sets of actors, tools and regulations related to the various dimensions of academic values.
In the run-up to a possible revision of the European QA framework, it is vital to critically consider what we really need at European level to create sufficient trust across the EHEA and to enable mobility, recognition, and inter-institutional cooperation. The ESG have proven to be a powerful tool for the implementation of policies such as student-centred learning or stakeholder engagement in governance. But we need to be careful that in asking QA to fulfil new agendas, we do not lose the best of the ESG, i.e. the central role of stakeholders, the wide consensus on the standards across Europe, and the focus on learning and teaching.
Note: The QA-FIT project is currently collecting feedback on the use of the ESG and the priorities of QA frameworks across the EHEA in order to provide a solid evidence base for policy discussions on QA in the Bologna Process.
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All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA.