How does a law student at the university of Oporto in Portugal know that their university is as keen to ensure the quality of their degree as a student at the university of Utrecht in the Netherlands? Could an employer in Portugal rest assured that if they employed a law student from the university of Goteborg in Sweden, that the Swedish university had the procedures in place to ensure quality?
Three years ago the Association of European Universities decided to establish a programme of institutional evaluation. It sought to answer the question: "Is there a shared understanding of quality underpinning knowledge development and transfer in Europe?" A report on the pilot phase of the programme has just been published. It looks at the main issues revealed during pilot audits of three universities - Goteborg, Oporto and Utrecht. All three universities volunteered to be audited, and a new round of audits on ten more volunteers begins this month.
The model adopted by the association was termed an "external supportive" review, its primary function being "the identification of academic strength and weakness with an eye to confirming the former and amending the latter".
The review included a self-evaluation. During the self-evaluation process, two members of the evaluating team visited the institutions to give both the university and the review panel a chance to outline their expectations.
The review panel consisted of three well-known academics, Hinrich Seidel, president of the University of Hanover, Sir David Smith, former principal of Edinburgh University, now president of Wolfson college, Oxford and Pierre Tabatoni, former chancellor of the universities of Paris and then president of the Institute for Education and Social Policy in Paris.
On the visits to the institutions, the panel members met more than 80 witnesses in three days. They came from university boards and committees, faculties and departments, the student body, local authorities and even competing colleges.
Andris Barblan, secretary general of the association and author of the report on the pilot phase, says: "In all three countries governments have been devolving responsibility down to the institutions, but at the same time demanding greater accountability for these devolved powers. On the continent universities have tended to have very little autonomy - unlike British universities." Dr Barblan said that what the pilot had proved is that "it is possible to freeze the main elements of quality control and that in Europe we do have a common system of references".
However, the overall picture to emerge was patchy in terms of quality assurance mechanisms. As Dr Barblan's overview says: "There is place for improvement, as quality strategies vary from 'not institutionalised' to 'pragmatic' or 'pervasive'."
In all three universities the question of how the university operated "as a whole" had become crucial. To reinforce institutional identity, and to ensure that faculties worked together, the three universities had all proposed targets for development that could be referred to by all sectors of the institution.
A clear mission statement helped reinforce identity, but in all three cases panel members felt the mission of the institution could be re-stated, usually to take better account of the needs of the region.
The audits found all three universities to be suffering from funding restrictions. The consequent need for flexibility had led to the growth of temporary contracts. In Utrecht the number of temporary contracts had increased to 50 per cent of all university employees.
The success of this pilot phase has led the Association of European Universities to consider establishing a consultancy service in institutional quality management for its members. Dr Barblan concludes: "This would represent the development of the desired spread throughout Europe of a quality culture that should foster a sense of belonging in the academic community around the same quest for identity, responsibility and credibility."