Letter from Brussels: Improving Quality Assurance in European Education

Bridges vol. 40, July 2014 / OpEds & Commentaries

By Florian Pecenka

The article below discusses three areas in which quality assurance has become a top priority in European higher education, as well as steps currently being undertaken to confront those issues and challenges.

Improving Quality Assurance in Europe: New Developments in Education

Recent developments in higher education, such as massive open online courses (MOOCs) and open education resources (OER), have put quality assurance back on the table again. And recent developments in Europe are adding a new variable to the discussion.

U-Multirank

In 2009, the European Commission launched a feasibility study to develop a system for multidimensional global university ranking. The study's aims were to see if multidimensional ranking of universities in Europe is possible and whether such a system could be used internationally. On May 13, 2014, U-multirank was launched in Brussels and presented to the public. U-multirank differs from other ranking systems in that end-users choose from a wide range of indicators, which are then used to calculate a ranking specific to the user's interests and goals. In addition to research, the new system proposes the following indicators: quality of teaching and learning, international orientation, success in knowledge transfer (partnerships with business and start-ups), and regional involvement. More than 850 participating higher education institutions, more than 1000 faculties, 5000 study programs in 70 countries, and 60,000 students responded to a survey that targeted students at institutions involved in the ranking. The 2014 ranking looks at four academic fields: business studies, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, and physics. Three more disciplines to be added in 2015 are psychology, computer science, and medicine.

The authors concluded that 90 percent of the participating universities performed very well on at least one indicator, but only 12 percent of those universities performed well on all indicators. Thus, the survey reflects the diversity of the European university landscape.

Austrian Universities in U-multirank

Austrian Universities are not doing as well in international rankings as one might hope. The reason lies in structural problems such as open access to study courses, high dropout rates, and an infrastructure that cannot always cope with a high student enrollment.

U-Multirank is not a classical ranking, but compares universities with other universities (or universities of applied sciences (UAS) to other UAS) according to indicators chosen by the user. The advantage is that the user gets a deeper and more differentiated picture of the universities that pop up based on the chosen criteria. Universities can be compared in specific areas to get a much more concrete picture of their relative merits based on the criteria. This gives the institutions the possibility of doing well in certain areas, as well as information on where they need to improve. Primary ranking criteria include the following: teaching and learning, research, knowledge transfer, international orientation, and regional engagement. Each of these areas is also divided into secondary areas of evaluation. Several Austrian Universities (including University Graz, University Vienna, and the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, as well as some UAS – such as IMC Krems, UAS Wiener Neustadt, or UAS Kärnten, which participated in the first round of U-multirank – are looking more deeply into the results in Austrian related higher education. The picture is as follows:

At the institutional level, public universities are doing much better than UAS in science and research. However UAS schools are performing much better than universities on the education and training indicators. The explanation lies in the different admission systems for universities and UAS, as well as in their respective professor/student ratio. At UAS there is one professor for every 50 students, whereas public schools have one professor per 500 students. Public Austrian universities also have no admission process except in the fields of medicine, sports, and music. By contrast, students at UAS need to pass an entry exam and in most cases have to pay student fees. Thus it is more difficult for students to get into UAS, as there are more obstacles and enrollment is limited. General public universities have no such restrictions.

Council conclusions about quality assurance supporting education and training

Under the Greek presidency of the European Union, a new set of council conclusions was developed in the first six months of 2014 on quality assurance in education and training. The council’s conclusions cover all education sectors, even beyond higher education, and are designed to strengthen the efficiency of the quality assurance systems and to give quality assurance agencies the flexibility needed to face challenges such as MOOCs.

EU Member States are required to develop a culture of improving quality assurance and to use EU instruments such as the new Erasmus+ program. But improving the quality is not enough. Assessment results should also be transparent and be made public, which has not always been the case in school, vocational, and training sectors.

One important issue raised during the council’s discussion was trans-border education. Trans-border, or franchise, education is the term used when a university opens a campus in another country or offers online courses in another country. The question then is whether those campuses or courses need to be recognized by the receiving country or to undergo any recognition procedures. As those universities offer a service, those campuses fall under the EU's service directive.

In trans-border education, Member States are required to improve their cooperation at all levels, as well as assuring the quality of trans-border education courses via their respective quality assurance agencies. Member States should continue to implement their national qualification frameworks and secure adequate coordination and cooperation between all those instruments at the European level.

Revising the standards and guidelines for quality assurance in the European Higher Education Area

The third major ongoing topic in education reform is the revision of the European Standard and Guidelines (ESG) within the Bologna Process. The Bologna Process, a series of ministerial meetings and agreements between European countries, is designed to ensure comparability in the standards and quality of higher education qualifications. Through the Bologna Communiquées, the process has created the European Higher Education Area. The proposal was presented in Brussels on March 18, 2014, in the Austrian Permanent Representation to the EU, by a number of European organizations working with quality assurance and international cooperation in higher education. These organizations included the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA), European Students Union (ESU), European University Association (EUA), and European Association of Institutions in Higher Education (EURASHE).

The ESG are used by institutions and quality assurance agencies as a reference document for internal and external quality assurance systems in higher education. The current ESG date from 2005. The aim of the current revision is to adapt the ESG to new developments and make them clearer, particularly in terms of their structure, in order to avoid the possibility of confusing interpretations. The proposal is 20 pages long and is currently considered a practical and technical guide for quality assurance agencies. For example, the ESG's standard for internal quality assurance procedures requires that institutions should have a policy and associated procedures for assuring the quality and standards of their programs and awards. Universities should also set up procedures for external quality assurance, with external procedures that take into account the effectiveness of the internal standardization. The purpose of these regulations is to establish a common framework for quality assurance systems for learning and teaching at the European, national, and institutional levels. The guidelines also enable the quality assurance and improvement of higher education in European schools by supporting mutual trust, facilitating recognition and mobility within and across national borders, and providing information on quality assurance within European higher education fields. The ESG apply to all types of programs, regardless of their mode of provision. Of course agencies and higher education institutions can have policies and processes for other activities beyond the scope of the ESG. Considering the scope of the guidelines, ESG's focus has been on learning and teaching in universities, which presently must include the learning environment and relevancy of links to research and innovation.

Although the ESG revision has been long discussed between the partners, no political statements have been made. The proposal was discussed at the last Bologna Follow-up Group meeting in Athens and the final version is expected to be adopted at the minister’s 2015 conference in Armenia.

Conclusion

The three examples above indicate that European quality assurance is a top priority in the European education sector and now includes a variety of issues. Improvements are made from the political side with a set of council conclusions, but also from the technical side with revision of the ESG; and the European Commission also brings forward its new ranking system. It is also encouraging to note that all sectors, political and technical, are working closely together with the European Commission and that the developments are now more interconnected. The future will show how well these changes can be put into practice.