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Wednesday, 29.03.2017, 00:37
Quality in education: improvements needed while questions abound
European efforts in quality assurance (QA) have shown both significant similarities and various specifics in the ways the quality of higher education is assured and enhanced. However, specialists in the field are almost unanimous that there is a widespread agreement that approaches to QA need to be tailored to specific disciplinary, institutional, national contexts and cultures in order to allow them to be both embedded into daily work and deliver efficiency.
Recent European Quality Assurance Forum (EQAF), as a major focal point for discussion, professional development and exchange of experiences among main interested parties in the process of QA took place this November in Ljubljana, Slovenia. First EQAF took place in Munich in 2006; since then it meets annually attracting each time about 500 participants.
Through a mix of plenary and parallel sessions, the forum combined practice-oriented and/or research-based discussions with presentations of current developments in quality assurance in paper sessions and workshops. The Forum provided an opportunity for participants to update their knowledge and extend their professional development.
For full papers and presentations from EQAF-11can be seen using a web link at:
Numerous approaches to complicated QA’s
The number of issues under discussion at the forum has been varied and comprehensive. Although the QA’s agenda is just a decade old (i.e. European standards and guidelines for internal/external QA were adopted at the 2005 Education Ministerial Meeting), the European universities do not have a clear and comprehensive approaches to modern QA’s challenges.
At that time, almost 10 years ago, the “Framework for Qualifications in the European Higher Education Area (FQ-EHEA)” was introduced.
It is important to mention that QA’s system is closely connected to the revolutionary for education systems the Bologna process. Thus, Dr. Padraig Walsh, President of the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA) and Chief Executive of the Quality and Qualifications in Ireland (QQI), underlined inherent connections between the Bologna process and quality assurance with analysis of various impacts, connections and issues.
It has to be mentioned that the Baltic States have been active in the QA process too: e.g. EKKA in Estonia (through higher education and VET); AIC in Latvia (through higher education, NARIC and NQF).
Already 24 of the 49 European Higher Education Area (EHEA) countries have agencies that are ENQA members and further 16 countries have agencies with the ENQA affiliates.
Other forum’s participants underlined that the modern QA’s trends consist of 3 dimensions: a) cross-border quality assurance (mobile agencies); b) quality assurance of cross-border higher education /transnational education (mobile institutions), and c) quality assurance of joint programmes (mobile students).
However, the process is not that easy to implement: thus, presently only 28 of the 49 member states in the EHEA have implemented ESG.
National/European context in QA: some questions remain
Already in the first European Quality Assurance Report (2005) it was recognized that education institutions should have a policy (and associated procedures) for QA as well as corresponding standards. To achieve this, “institutions should develop and implement a strategy for continuous enhancement of quality”, said the report. For example, the report specified the necessary “ingredients” in QA policy statement: including relationship between teaching and research/publications; the institutions, departments and universities are bearing all the responsibilities for the QA; the students’ involvement in QA and, finally, describing the ways in which the QAs are “implemented, monitored and revised”.
However, after revealing all the important features of the report (more than 10 years’ old !), Catherine Owen, from University of Glasgow was still trying to find out: 1) what values, ethos, culture and practices European higher education community wants presently to reflect in QA measurement and evaluation tools? 2) What practices and models should be supported and developed? 3) What practices, tools and materials represent national culture and values in an authentic way? 4) Have the quality processes reflect and support academic identities? 5) Whose needs should universities primarily serve? 6) Do existing quality evaluation practices and tools reflect those needs?
Same interest has been around developing and supporting curriculum. Recent publication -Drivers and barriers to achieving quality in higher education. (Ed. H. Eggins), - Springer Science & Business Media Publ.-2014), is an evident proof of the growing interest. The publication has shown that, in fact, quality of teaching is very difficult if impossible to measure!
Bengt-Ove Boström, senior adviser from University of Gothenburg, Sweden and a leader in the development of the new QA system for education at the University, together with Åsa Kettis, the head of the division for Quality Enhancement at Uppsala University have underlined that “over the last decades higher education in Sweden had been subject to a number of different national QA systems”, which have been met with criticism.
However, in 2012, the Swedish Association of Higher Education (SUHF) decided to take a constructive and long term position on the issue, which proved to be successful: hence the new national system was being launched.
The authors describe the opportunities and challenges that this new system brings. Not least, because the political decision about the system “means that parts of the old system could be fused into the new system, which might cause unwanted effects”, the authors’ argued.
In 2012, the Swedish Association of Higher Education (SUHF), i.e. the Swedish rectors’ conference, commissioned its Expert Group on Quality to proactively propose a long-term position regarding the required characteristics of such a system. The proposal made was adopted by the General Assembly of SUHF in October 2013.
However, the authors finally posed some questions as well: 1) How can a national organization of universities (i.e. a rectors’ conference or the like) influence national policy on QA of education? 2) Is it possible to mix QA processes emanating from different QA regimes and ideologies, what might happen if a mix happens? 3) What are the potential possibilities and challenges of a national quality system that provides a high degree of ownership and responsibility on behalf of HEIs?
Thérèse Zhang, deputy director for Higher Education Policy, from the European University Association (EUA) in her presentation “Developing pedagogies as means for improving quality: learning and teaching as a European priority” specified the EUA’s follow-up program for the year to come.
The EUA’s “Learning and Teaching Initiative” follows the 2015-trends, i.e. that more attention is needed on the learning and teaching process in European universities. Besides, it is necessary to facilitate the exchange of experience on learning and teaching among EUA members and other interested stakeholders.
Therefore, the first European Learning and Teaching Forum is planned to take place in Paris (28-29 September, 2017.
Preparation for the forum and formulation of the thematic peer groups has already begun. See: http://eua.be/Libraries/eqaf-2016/presentations/effect_eqaf-nov-2016_tz_publish.pdf?sfvrsn=0
SDGs and European education quality
The UN Agenda for Sustainable Development sets out the global framework to eradicate poverty and achieve sustainable development by 2030. The new objectives, a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (known as SDGs), were formally adopted by the international community at a UN Summit (25- 27 September, 2015).
Thus, “the SDG’s goal nr. 4” is specifically devoted to QA: “to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”.
The “UN educational goal” is aimed at achieving inclusive and quality education for all and reaffirms the belief that education is one of the most powerful and proven vehicles for sustainable development.
Besides, this goal aims to provide equal access to affordable vocational training, to eliminate gender and wealth disparities, and achieve universal access to a quality higher education.
The SDGs are particularly important for European competitiveness, as “strengths in higher education, training & innovation” over the last decade improved significantly in the Baltic Sea Region, BSR.
However, the European education quality is far below the global “competitors”: thus, among top global 400 best universities are only Denmark (Copenhagen University) occupying the 69 place, Sweden (Lund University on the 73 place), Finland (Helsinki University with 91 place & Norway (Oslo University with 113 place.
Among the three Baltic States, only University of Tartu is among the top with 347 rank in the list. See: http://www.baltic-course.com/eng/book_review/?doc=126286
The QA’s discussions are far from being over: the issues are indeed complicated and even controversial. As is seen from some of the 11th Forum’s participants, there are still numerous questions to resolve. But the European University Association is willing and able to take an active part in streamlining the education quality issues and their assurance.