What do higher education institutions want from quality assurance tools?

Reflecting on progress made in the enhancement of quality, transparency and mobility over the past two decades, early findings from the QA-FIT project provide some noteworthy insights into the sector’s perspective on the next steps for a key quality assurance instrument, the ESG.

One of the main achievements of the Bologna Process is the enhancement of quality, transparency and mobility across the European Higher Education Area (EHEA). Instrumental to this success are the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (ESG). The results of a survey conducted last year as part of the QA-FIT project confirm that higher education institutions consider the ESG to be an indispensable tool to promote common standards, increase trust, and fulfil many other important purposes.

Since the ESG have proven themselves to be a reliable source of support, we might assume that HEIs will not only continue to look to them for guidance, but also support a revision of the document resulting in the addition of several aspects of their missions.

However, the QA-FIT survey showed that higher education institutions are less keen than other stakeholders, such as QA agencies and students, on the revision of the ESG. In addition, when asked if the current scope of the ESG is too narrow, the majority of respondents disagreed. In that case, what do higher education institutions want from the ESG?

The second phase of the QA-FIT project is looking more closely at the common needs and priorities of HEIs regarding quality assurance, and some things are already clear. For example, universities are keen to protect what they see as the pillars of the European approach to quality assurance: academic integrity, participation of students and staff in QA processes, and student-centred learning. But while they believe that they already have adequate guidance on the first two, they would welcome additional advice on the latter. In fact, although student-centred learning is specifically addressed by standard 1.3 of the ESG and further mentioned in relation to teachers’ competences, learning resources and student support, HEIs are still struggling to implement it. This is echoed by national students’ unions, that, when answering the QA-FIT survey, lamented that the student-centred approach is not always adopted in the design of study programmes and courses. Universities would welcome some clarification about student-centred learning, starting from its definition, which is currently not included in the ESG.

Institutions would also welcome additional support in linking learning and teaching activities with research activities. The ESG currently encourage the strengthening of connections between teaching and research in order to ensure a high-quality student experience (standard 1.5), but do not provide specific guidance. One suggestion during a recent QA-FIT focus group was that the revision of the ESG should add one specific standard (and related guidelines) on the connection between teaching and research. The topic is of considerable importance to HEIs not only in relation to student experience, but also due to its links to other institutional activities, such as curriculum design and staff recruitment and promotion. Furthermore, although research-informed teaching has been proven to have a substantial and positive impact on student experience, governments in the EHEA do not actively encourage the integration of the two activities and tend to assign relevant competences to different ministries and/or departments and funding bodies. In this respect, it may be useful for the ESG to not only support HEIs in the design and implementation of their activities, but also encourage governments to reconsider their policies in this regard.

Although the ESG may help to obtain governmental support for certain higher education activities, they are primarily perceived as a tool to safeguard universities from external interference. In fact, evidence collected from HEIs through the QA-FIT project has shown firm opposition to the inclusion of institutional governance and strategy in the ESG. But there is also scepticism towards the addition of research and the third mission, as well as of current topics such as micro-credentials. This is mainly due to concerns about the applicability of the ESG and the additional workload for academic and administrative staff that may result from the document’s revision. The majority of HEIs seem to agree on the idea that the ESG should set minimum (and measurable) standards for quality education and accompany them with related guidelines supporting their applicability. This should ensure the continuation of the existing consensus around the document and guarantee its applicability across the highly diverse EHEA. Expanding the scope to include topics that are currently in the spotlight, such as micro-credentials, risks making parts of the ESG obsolete in a few years when those topics may no longer be central to higher education. Also addressing research and the third mission through an EHEA level framework may do more harm than good. According to the input of EUA’s collective members (national rectors’ conferences) to QA-FIT, these two missions could not be adequately evaluated through ESG standards, which could even limit universities’ activities in these areas by being too prescriptive and reducing institutions’ room for creativity.

Reluctance among HEIs to expand the ESG does not mean that they consider topics outside of its current scope to be unimportant. Universities are constantly facing new challenges, and although they have successfully adapted over time, today’s pace of change increases their need for support in all areas of activity. But such support should not necessarily come from the ESG and from quality assurance in general, since there are other approaches and actors that could deliver it. The ESG should remain a fundamental tool of the Bologna Process that can be adapted to different contexts.

“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.

Cecilia Biaggi

Cecilia Biaggi is a Policy and Project Officer, Institutional Development, at the European University Association.


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