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Widening the scope of quality assurance in higher education

By Tia Loukkola, Director of Institutional Development and senior quality assurance expert at the European University Association.

In Europe, quality assurance has made major strides since the beginning of the Bologna Process. A key catalyst in this have been the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (ESG). While this key document focuses on the quality assurance of the educational mission of universities, the introduction of the revised version from 2015 also includes an important parallel expectation: higher education institutions must develop quality assurance that encompasses all other institutional activities as well. The debates surrounding research integrity and university governance and its efficiency, for example, show that there is, indeed, a need for institutions to show accountability in their other activities.

At this year’s European Quality Assurance Forum (EQAF), which is underway in Vienna, Austria (15-17 November 2018), we want to specifically encourage the audience to reflect on how and to what extent quality assurance processes cover institutional activities other than education.

While studies both within and beyond Europe show that institutions’ internal quality assurance systems in many contexts focus on learning and teaching, they also indicate that quality assurance systems are increasingly covering other institutional activities even where this has not been the case until now. Responses to the EQAF call for contributions, and as a result the event programme, indicate that there is much reflection on this issue and various initiatives on the topic are taking place across Europe. Plus, there are questions as to how to translate this into practice. In fact, at EQAF we are addressing precisely how the scope of quality assurance is widening, in particular in two very interesting ways.

First, we are debating about how quality assurance agencies and higher education institutions ensure and enhance the quality of activities outside of education, such as governance, student services, academic integrity, doctoral education and research. Interestingly, quality assurance agencies in Portugal and Austria have analysed the quality assurance processes of service to society activities in their respective countries and both concluded that this area is still very much a work in progress, not least because of its diversity. Participants at EQAF are talking about this, as well as exploring concrete solutions to better face this aspect of widening quality assurance.

Second, the scope of quality assurance is changing due to attempts to address ever-diversifying learning and teaching methods and modalities. That is why we are looking at, among others, case studies and project results on the quality assurance of e-learning. We are also talking about what role quality assurance agencies should play in safeguarding the quality of programmes that are increasingly taught in foreign languages. Finally, we are exploring how to assure credentials other than traditional higher education qualifications.

Interestingly, there are several examples of practices on how higher education institutions and quality assurance agencies involve students in quality assurance processes. The cases being presented clearly show that the question is no longer whether to involve students and in which activities, rather how to ensure their meaningful participation and increase the added value of students as partners.

The diversity of practices in the different sessions of EQAF shows that quality assurance processes are continuing to evolve. Higher education institutions and quality assurance agencies are seeking ways to ensure the relevance and effectiveness of their processes and they are adjusting and widening the scope precisely as a means to this end. When we close this year’s EQAF with a plenary session on trends in higher education and the implications of a changing higher education system landscape, we invite EQAF participants to reflect on how these issues translate into their own unique contexts.

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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