Europe is told to relearn the ABCs of quality assurance

Experts see challenges in ensuring standardisation while not stifling innovation. Matthew Reisz reports

November 25, 2010

Quality assurance within European higher education requires radical re-examination, senior experts in the field heard at a European University Association conference.

Speaking at the Université Claude Bernard in Lyon last week, Peter Williams, the former head of the Quality Assurance Agency in the UK, recalled the "imperious diktat" from European ministers that asked the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education, which he served as president, "to develop an agreed set of standards, procedures and guidelines on quality assurance".

Mr Williams led the group that drafted the first and second parts of the European Standards and Guidelines (ESG), adopted at the 2005 Bergen meeting of education ministers, which he said he regards as "among the most innovative and effective achievements of the first decade of the Bologna Process and the European Higher Education Area.

"They have woken up many sleeping higher education systems and have kept on their toes those which were already awake."

However, Mr Williams noted, different cultural and linguistic contexts - there is no real equivalent in French even for the word "standards" - meant that the wholesale adoption of the ESG had also brought with it a number of problems. "Forty-seven countries with more than 50 higher education systems among them, using 13 different versions of the ESG, does not seem to me a recipe for effective harmonisation," he said.

Necessary revisions were "likely to raise so many difficult, if not intractable, questions that by the time they are sorted out it will be time for version three", he added.

One key issue is the process of reviewing quality assurance and accreditation agencies, in which Mr Williams believes "current standards and guidelines may soon be too constraining to be useful".

Another speaker at the conference, entitled "Building bridges: making sense of QA in European, national and institutional contexts", was Andrée Sursock, a senior adviser at the EUA.

Instead of a chronological look at developments in quality assurance, she took an alphabetical approach: A for accreditation, B for Bologna, C for change, and so on.

Yet her real concern was to sketch in the challenges that lie ahead, given that "quality assurance needs to take account of all the changes of the past 10 years, notably the increase in cooperation within countries and across borders".

How, asked Dr Sursock, can systems of evaluation and accreditation ensure the right balance between standardisation, diversity and innovation?

Was a single definition of "excellence" an effective means of ensuring social goals? And exactly who should be evaluating what?

In francophone countries, for example, many institutions wish to be evaluated by the Commission des Titres d'Ingénieur, Dr Sursock said, as well as by national quality assurance agencies, necessitating "some kind of joint evaluation process and raising the provocative question: are national evaluations the way forward?

"Furthermore, should evaluation be just for teaching or for the seamless knowledge triangle of teaching, research and service to society? How far is quality assurance able to look at that?" she asked.

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