“European Quality Labels” and Quality Assurance
Dr Achim Hopbach, President of the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA) - Managing Director of the German Accreditation Council
The development of quality assurance in European higher education reached a major milestone when ministers of higher education of the Bologna signatory countries met in Berlin in 2003 and agreed on a number of basic principles that paved the way for developing procedures and systems:
[Ministers] also stress that consistent with the principle of institutional autonomy, the primary responsibility for quality assurance in higher education lies with each institution itself and this provides the basis for real accountability of the academic system within the national quality framework.
Based on this principle, they committed themselves to developing and implementing quality assurance systems that would include:
• A definition of the responsibilities of the bodies and institutions involved.
• Evaluation of programmes or institutions, including internal assessment, external
review, participation of students and the publication of results.
• A system of accreditation, certification or comparable procedures.
• International participation, co-operation and networking. (Berlin Communiqué 2003, 3).
Based on these principles, national quality assurance systems and agencies were set up to form the basic model for assessment. When ministers officially launched the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) in 2010, external quality assurance based on this model had been implemented in all Bologna signatory countries, however in unique and diverse ways. Regarding external quality assurance procedures as such, one can say that they are by and large designed and conducted in accordance with ESG part II. (Hopbach 2012)
However, in addition to the national approach to quality assurance, initiatives at European level already existed such as accreditation schemes in the fields of economics (EQUIS) and public administration (EAPAA) and also the Institutional Evaluation Programme (IEP) of the European University Association.12 After 2003, this approach gained momentum when, with financial support of the European Commission, pan-European subject-specific initiatives for quality assurance emerged, often referred to as “European Quality Labels”, the first of which was the Eurobachelor® in chemistry which started in 2003. These approaches caught attention in political debates around 2009 when the “Report on progress in quality assurance in higher education” by the European Commission emphasized their role in fostering a stronger European dimension in quality assurance.
The seminar was dedicated to discussing the nature of these “European Quality Labels” in terms of their aims and objectives, methodological approaches and criteria used in their reviews, and particularly, to analyse their specific contribution to quality assurance in the EHEA. It also focused on “European Quality Labels” in the fields of engineering and science such as the EURO-INF Quality Label in informatics and EURO-AGES in the field of geology which were set up following the most well-known label EUR-ACE® and polifonia which started as an ERASMUS Network for Music in 2004. Recently, some of these initiatives joined together with professional accreditors in the foundation of the European Alliance for Subject Specific and Professional Accreditation and Quality Assurance (EASPA). This report highlights the main discussions and issues that arose from this seminar.
One obvious outcome of the seminar shall be mentioned right at the beginning. It seems rather inappropriate to subsume the aforementioned initiatives and approaches under the uniform heading “quality label”. On the one hand, they share the view that there is a need for a subject-specific approach to quality assurance in Europe as it is put by AEC: “assessing and accrediting institutions and programmes for higher music education must be rooted in a comprehensive understanding of the characteristics of music and the contexts and traditions in which music is created. Without such a rooting, the assessment may be preoccupied with only technical and academic aspects of musical production and ignore the innate unique and artistic characteristics of music.” (AEC 2010, p 6) On the other hand, the labels differ substantially in the implementation as far as purposes, organisational structures and activities are concerned in detail. This has to be borne in mind whenever the labels are mentioned or rather generalizing statements are made in the following.
The principles of quality assurance in the EHEA are laid down in The European Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ESG) ministers of the Bologna signatory countries adopted in 2005. The ESG were “designed to be applicable to all higher education institutions and quality assurance agencies in Europe, irrespective of their structure, function and size, and the national system in which they are located.” Based on this very comprehensive claim, the ESG can be considered as the main reference point for the design of quality assurance in the emerging EHEA, be it internal or external quality assurance. (ENQA 2009)
The main purpose of these standards and guidelines was to guarantee professionally conducted quality assurance procedures on a high quality level. The ESG prefer the generic principle to the specific requirement and focus more on what should be done than how it should be achieved. Therefore, the ESG were not meant to explicitly comprise standards for quality of higher education as such (i.e. requirements for HE institutions and the design of programmes). The ESG combine two aspects in particular common standards for professionalism in terms of procedures and agencies which nowadays are not only shared within Europe and the EHEA but more and more worldwide; and the European notion of quality assurance which is in the first instance laid down in the following principles:
• HEIs bare the main responsibility for quality;
• The four stage-model applies: Internal evaluation, external evaluation by peers, publication of reports, follow-up procedure;
• External quality assurance procedures should take into account the effectiveness of the internal quality assurance processes;
• Quality assurance processes, irrespective of the very nature and design of the chosen approach, have to serve the developmental function of quality assurance;
• Stakeholder, especially student involvement is critical in all phases, also in the development of quality assurance processes;
• And quality assurance agencies need to be independent in so far as they must have full autonomy for their procedures and decisions.
The specific meaning of the ESG lies not only in the fact that quality assurance processes are carried out throughout the EHEA based on the same standards. Even more interesting is the fact that the ESG were developed by all relevant stakeholders (EUA, EURASHE, ESU and ENQA; known as the E4 group) and, thus, make actors in the field of quality assurance share the same values and principles, fostering a common understanding. This alludes to a significant feature of the quality assurance in European higher education, which is the key role of stakeholders. (Hopbach 2012)
The most important feature of the “quality labels” refers to their respective backgrounds and purposes. In general, the emergence of many labels is to be seen in the frame of the development of the learning outcomes approach and of qualifications frameworks within the Bologna Process since 2003. Partly linked to the TUNING project, a major purpose of the labels was to add subject-specific learning outcomes or qualification frameworks to the generic approach of the Qualifications Framework of the EHEA. In particular, the Eurobachelor® project in chemistry and Polifonia can be subsumed under this heading. Whereas the quality assurance and/or accreditation function was added to the initial purpose of these labels only after some time other initiatives envisaged the set up of a subject-specific accreditation scheme at European level right from the beginning, such as EUR-ACE® and EURO-INF, both of which go further by linking subject-specific learning outcomes to standards for the design of the respective curricula.
By referring to subject-specific academic standards, the quality labels go beyond the European understanding of quality assurance which refrain from this type of standardisation, based on the principle of autonomy of HEI as stipulated in the Berlin Communiqué. The discussion about the specific purpose of the quality labels culminates
in the perhaps most relevant question which reads as follows: Who shall be responsible for defining academic standards? On the one hand, labels representatives state that this needs to be an integral part of quality assurance and thus the agency has to play a core role. On the other hand, the EHEA has set up a whole quality infrastructure which consists of qualifications frameworks, learning outcomes, and ECTS, etc., with quality assurance as only one part of it, and with different responsibilities, namely the responsibility of autonomous HEI for academic standards and of independent agencies for quality assurance procedures. Regarding common learning outcomes in the EHEA ministers, in the Communiqué of Leuven/Louvain-la-Neuve ministerial meeting in 2004 also emphasized this role of HEI:”Academics, in close cooperation with student and employer representatives, will continue to develop learning outcomes and international reference points for a growing number of subject areas“ (Leuven Louvain-la-Neuve Communiqué 2009, p. 4), without mentioning quality assurance agencies in this respect.
This leads to another important feature of some of the labels, namely the role of professional standards at the European level. The labels, for example, in the engineering sector focus on professional standards in addition to academic standards as criteria for the accreditation decision. By referring to entry qualifications for the labor market, these labels widen the focus and add to their approach elements of professional accreditation. Hence the perspective of the individual is added to the perspective of the programme. In the case for instance of EUR-ACE® this shouldn’t come as a surprise since the membership comprises also statutory bodies with responsibility for professional accreditation and thus for regulating the access to the profession. However, a discussion which is as old as the discussion about learning outcomes gains momentum through this widened focus: The discussion about a comprehensive educational mandate of HEI which goes beyond short term employability compared to a rather focused interest of professional associations which is necessarily oriented towards actual requirements in a certain professional field.
The specific nature of the purposes of the labels is closely linked with the organizational set up which, again, reveals the substantial differences between some of the labels. Mainly three groups of actors involved can be identified: HEI, professional associations/bodies and accreditation agencies. These collaborate in different combinations. Whereas polifonia is an initiative by the Association of European Conservatoires (AEC) and, thus, exclusively, run by HEIs, EUR-ACE® on the other side has only two members coming from academia, one Italian HEI and one association of faculties in Italy, and the rest representing professions or statutory bodies which regulate the professions.
This means that, in accordance with the organizational structure the academic standards might either be defined by representatives coming from academia (polifonia) or rather by professional organizations (EUR-ACE®).
It’s obvious that in the latter case the critical question about the autonomy of HEI for quality in higher education gains even more relevance.
In conclusion, one can say that the principles and purposes of the labels are broader than those of quality assurance and focus on translating the learning outcomes approach to subject specific standards at European level.
As far as the methodology of external quality assurance in the EHEA is concerned, the principles are laid down in part II of the ESG which start with part I of the ESG that refers to the prime responsibility of the HEI for quality assurance. The other standards refer to procedural principles such as:
• Determination of aims and objectives before the process starts by including HEI (2.2);
• Application of publicly available predefined criteria in case formal decisions are made (2.3);
• Appropriate design of processes ffp (2.4);
• Publication of reports (2.5);
• Predetermined follow-up procedure (2.6);
• Periodicity of reviews (2.7);
• And system-wide analyses reports are produced describing and analysing the general findings. (2.8) (ENQA, 2009)
In general, the quality labels took these principles, as developed since the pilot projects in the mid nineties, as reference point for the design of their quality assurance and accreditation procedures, however to a different degree. They work with self-evaluation and external evaluation with a site visit by peers, and a compulsory follow-up. The Eurobachelor® label in chemistry is partly an exception since in some countries the label is awarded by the responsible committee based exclusively on a report by the HEI without any self-evaluation and also without any peer review and site visits. In other countries, the label is awarded by recognized agencies which do site visits. Also, polifonia has to be distinguished from other labels due to its wider scope. Whereas EURO-AGES, EURO-INF and EUR-ACE® are restricted to accreditation at the programme level, polifonia “offers” a more comprehensive approach with guidelines for internal quality assurance and also guidelines and criteria for external quality assurance at programme and institutional levels. Designing the guidelines in accordance with the ESG the specific contribution of polifonia is rather to be seen in “translating” the regular procedures of quality into a discipline that deviates substantially from other disciplines as far as fundamental features such as programme design, teaching, the learning environment and the whole set-up and profile of the institutions are concerned. To name but one specific feature, polifonia highlights the great variety of musical education which makes it impossible to set up prescriptive standards: “Even if objectivity can be applied to a number of aspects and concepts relating to musical skills, there are ultimately no final solutions or truths in music; there is no single method or route that will attain artistic goals.“ (AEC 2010, 14) Review panels need to be sensitive regarding this specific nature of musical education, which translates in curricular features such as private lessons, more time for self-study, etc. than in other disciplines.
The requirements for accreditation procedures for the purpose of conveying the labels of EURO-AGES, EURO-INF and EUR-ACE® are almost identical. With regard to two core aspects of quality assurance in the EHEA the three of them deviate substantially by neither requiring student involvement at all in the review panels nor foreseeing a
publication of the review reports. Both standards have to be considered obviously as core elements of external quality assurance in the EHEA. Otherwise these labels don’t provide any specific additional feature in their methodology, which would relate to subject specific questions.
One commonality of almost all labels refers to the actual implementation of reviews because they don’t necessarily conduct the reviews by themselves but also certify other bodies to do so. EUR-ACE® has authorized accreditation agencies like ASIIN and the French CTI, professional associations like the Association for Engineering Education in Russia, the Turkish Association for Evaluation and Accreditation of Engineering, and statutory bodies like the Engineering Council in UK, Engineers Ireland, and the Portugese Ordem dos Engenheiros. Eurobachelor® is working with agencies from the academic sector like ASIIN and the University Accreditation Commission from Poland, and also with professional associations like the Italian Chemical Association and the Royal Society of Chemistry for procedures in the UK and Ireland. EURO-INF is working so far with ASIIN. Polifonia does not certify other agencies but rather collaborates with national agencies in the accreditation of priogrammes.
In conclusion, one can say that in terms of methodology, the labels, different from their principles and purposes, don’t make a subject-specific contribution to quality assurance in the EHEA. The specificity of some labels consists rather of shortcomings in terms of application of the ESG.
The seminar and the discussions revealed that:
• European Quality Labels are not monolithic, so it is misleading to talk about “the” labels because of their substantial heterogeneity in terms of purpose, structure and procedures;
• The most important feature of the labels, and maybe the only feature they have in common, is the core role that academic standards, in some cases also professional standards, play. Some of the labels translate this role also into requirements for the design of programmes.
• In terms of methodology and design of the quality assurance procedures, no subject-specific feature applies which would add to the European approach in quality assurance. However, the labels from the engineering and informatics sectors fall short in terms of compliance with the ESG due to lack of student members on the review panels and lack of publication of reports.
• These outcomes demonstrate that most of the labels don’t make a subject-specific contribution to quality assurance as such. They should rather be called as a means to link subject-specific learning outcomes at the European level to quality assurance. This counts particularly for those labels that also apply professional standards and thus link academic accreditation of programmes to regulating access to the profession.
• The discussion revealed that the definition of subject-specific learning outcomes by agencies other than representing academia and also partly in collaboration with professional associations creates substantial tensions with “traditional” quality assurance according to the European standards which emphasize that the primary responsibility for quality rests with the individual HEI whereas standardization only applies for the level and scope of the qualifications through the Qualifications Framework of the EHEA.
AEC (2010), Quality Assurance and Accreditation in Higher Music Education http://www.bologna-and-music.org/home.asp?id=1704&lang=en (Accessed 13 March 2012)
Berlin Communiqué 2003, http://www.ehea.info/Uploads/Declarations/Berlin_Communique1.pdf (Accessed 13 March 2012)
ECTNA Good Practice Advice for evaluation of the Applications for the Chemistry Eurobachelor® Label http://ectn-assoc.cpe.fr/chemistry-eurolabels/doc/officials/Off_EBL101130_Eurobachelor_GPAdviceEvalAppl_201102V1.pdf (Accesser 13 March 2012)
ENQA (2009) Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area, Helsinki http://www.enqa.eu/files/ESG_3edition%20%282%29.pdf (Accessed 13 March 2012)
EUR-ACE Framework Standards for the Accreditation of Engineering Programmes (2008) http://www.enaee.eu/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/EUR-ACE_Framework-Standards_2008-11-0511.pdf (Accessed 13 March 2012)
EURO-AGES Qualifications Framewor and Accreditation Criteria for Geology Study-Progranmes in Europe (2011) http://www.euro-ages.eu/pages/final-results.php (Accessed 13 March 2012)
EURO-INF Framework Standards and Accreditation Criteria for Informatics Degree Programmes (2011) http://www.eqanie.eu/pages/quality-label.php (Accessed 13 March 2012)
Hopbach, A. (2012), External quality assurance between European consensus and national agendas, in: Curaj, A., et al. (eds.), European Higher Education at the Crossroads: Between the Bologna Process and National Reforms, Heidelberg et al.
Leuven_Louvain-la Neuve_Communiqué 2009, http://www.ehea.info/Uploads/Declarations/Leuven_Louvain-la-Neuve_Communiqu%C3%A9_April_2009.pdf (Accessed 13 March 2012)