ESIB – The National Unions of Students in Europe was founded in 1982 to promote the educational, economic, cultural, social and political interests of students in Europe. ESIB, through its 48 members from 36 countries, currently represents more than 10 million students in Europe.
Quality is a distinguishing characteristic that provides a guide for students and higher education institutions. ESIB believes that quality of the higher education is one of the highest priorities in the debates within the European higher education society. The Bologna Process is one important driver for this debate. ESIB warmly welcomes this, because a debate on the quality of Higher Education within Europe concerns the heart of our work: highly qualified and accessible higher education. High quality and accessibility should be two sides of one coin. Accessible higher education that is not of high quality is worthless and high quality education that is not widely accessible is meaningless. ESIB welcomes the further development of international co-operation to improve the quality, transparency, comparability and compatibility of degrees and studies.
There are many different types of quality assurance and accreditation agencies across Europe. There are agencies claiming to do quality assurance, actually doing accreditation and the other way around. Furthermore the aims and methods of quality assurance and accreditation differ from country to country and there are obscurities in the terms being used. To make the situation more confusing, institutions are at the moment inviting accreditation agencies from outside Europe to accredit their programmes. The situation of accreditation is chaotic and uncontrolled which does not enhance the mutual trust between higher education institutions or benefit higher education in Europe and as such threatens mobility.
There is variation in the background of the higher education systems in Europe. This means that requirements for quality assurance and accreditation also vary. Every country within the Bologna process has committed itself to creating a system of accreditation, certification or comparable procedures. Implementation of such subsystems may vary depending on the national context, but ESIB does see some general principles.
In this document ESIB gives a definition of quality assurance and accreditation and discusses ESIB’s point of view on these. A clear definition of quality assurance and accreditation helps to assess the work different quality assurance and accreditation agencies undertake and whether this should actually be regarded or rather as accreditation. Then we give our point of view on the different levels in and the different aspects of quality assurance.
Quality Assurance is an ongoing process that ensures the delivery of agreed standards. These agreed standards should make sure every educational institution, of which the quality is assured, has the potential ability to achieve a high quality of content. Quality Assurance must not to be confused with accreditation. The goal of Quality Assurance is to improve education and therefore it should take place on all levels (course, programme, and institution and its sub-divisions) and be a continuous process.
Accreditation is both a status and a process. It should provide a public certification of acceptable minimum quality as well as the opportunity and incentive for self-improvement in the programs accredited. The process of accreditation should provide higher education with an opportunity for critical self-analysis leading to improvement of quality; for consultation and advice from persons coming from other higher education institutions.
Accreditation reflects the fact that in achieving recognition, the individual program is committed to self-study and external review. Not only to meet certain minimum standards but also to continuously seek ways in which to enhance the quality of education. Therefore accreditation must be a process in different steps: the three stepping-stones of accreditation.
Step one is to develop criteria or standards, which will be used in the accreditation process. In this step the criteria should be based on the views of external experts, the academic community (incl. the students).
Step two is the internal accreditation or the self-evaluation of the individual program. The result of this step is a self-evaluation report. In this step the entire view of the higher education community (students, teaching staff, researchers and support staff) must have a direct influence.
Step three is the external accreditation by an accreditation body. This accreditation body should be publicly accountable and operationally independent from the ministries of education and the higher education institution concerned. The full and active involvement of students in this step is essential.
The result of this step is an external accreditation report. Also included in this step is of course the possibility for the individual program to get feedback and recommendations. The result of the whole accreditation process is an accreditation report accessible by all stakeholders. If accreditation is to be accepted by all parties concerned the process must be completely transparent.
Recognising that there will be extended periods between external audit processes, all institutions should also develop internal quality assurance processes at the programme level. Institutions should develop effective follow-up procedures after external programme audit. Institutional management and governing bodies, academic and support staff as well as students and their representatives should be fully involved in the process of programme quality assurance, including planning, implementation and review. The external review panel should assess the efficacy of the internal quality assurance processes at the programme level. Quality assurance at the programme level is essential because even within institutions standards and procedures may vary and students should be able to base their programme choices on reliable and accurate information.
A national agency, that is publicly accountable and operationally independent from the ministry and the higher education institutions, should regard as its primary function the assurance of quality at a programme level. This may involve implementation of a regular and planned schedule of audit procedures over a period of years by the agency. This information should be published and available to students and all the other stakeholders in education. He external auditing at the programme level must not judge the issues related to the freedom of teaching and research. Such a system of audit should look at all aspects of the academic provision at that level (e.g. library and IT resources, tutor support, student participation etc.) and should be used by the institution to maintain and improve the quality of all programmes. All external audit processes of this type should fully engage with the institutional management, academic and support staff as well as students and their representatives. This engagement should include the representation of students as full members of the external review panels. All members of these panels should be as independent as possible, but this process should be based on peer review. The reports of the external audit processes have to be made public in a format accessible to students and in a way that would not give rise to ranking.
Subsidiary in this approach there is a need to develop institutional and internal quality assurance mechanisms in the framework of a “fitness for purpose” approach to measure and assess whether the institutions are fulfilling the missions they have defined for themselves. The development of sound internal and institutional quality assurance mechanisms plays a key role in that assessment.
With a framework for institutional quality assurance in place, higher education institutions will also be better empowered to meet the challenges posed by societal change and the development of knowledge based economy and society.
The learning environment for the students should be at the core of these goals and missions. The students are a heterogeneous group (there is for instance diversity within the group when it comes to gender, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, social background or situational defined disabilities). All defined goals and missions should take this heterogeneity into account to create higher education institutions that are both universally accessible to all, and sound learning environments for all students.
The ultimate goal of institutional quality assurance is to develop an internal quality culture, which ensures that quality is a focus of the institution at all levels and is incorporated in the everyday work of the institutional management, academic and support staff as well as students and their representatives.
Institutional quality assurance and evaluation is primarily a responsibility of the higher education institutions. The first step of the process is defining the goals and missions by the decision making bodies at institutional and faculty level. The learning environment for the student should be at the core of these goals and missions. The students are a heterogeneous group (there is for instance diversity within the group when it comes to gender, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, social background or situational defined disabilities). All defined goals and missions should take this heterogeneity into account to create higher education institutions that are both universally accessible to all, and sound learning environment for all students. Internal quality assurance bodies consisting of professors, teachers, staff and students need to be set up at all levels afterwards to carry out the internal quality assurance work. A coordinating body, comprising the university management and governing bodies, students and academic and support staff should be set up at the institutional level to monitor these processes and comprise the missions and goals into a cohesive institutional strategy. This body should be accountable to the decision-making bodies and the university governing bodies to ensure that necessary steps are taken and the process is carried out in a continuous manner to reach the goals of the institution. All results and outcomes of the quality assurance process must be made public and especially accessible to students and in a way that would not give rise to ranking.
There must be an institutional audit by an external body, which could be the national quality assurance agency. This audit would review the HEI governing bodies and management, internal quality mechanisms as well as support structures within the institution that cover more than one programme (e.g. library and IT resources, tutor support and student participation) and the overall quality of student life and student activity at the institution.
Quality assurance and accreditation
The development of quality assurance and evaluation at an institutional level and quality assurance and accreditation on programme level is of key importance for maintaining and enhancing quality.
For the protection and guidance of students, quality assurance and accreditation at the programme level must be of prime importance. Individual students are most directly affected by the quality of their own programme of study and therefore programme level reports will be the best guide of quality for those students. Institutional quality assurance is also of great relevance as it helps the institutions to develop a higher level of quality to the benefit of all actors in the higher education sector and therefore, this institutional evaluation should address more than just the content of academic provision and cover support facilities such as library and IT resources, tutor support and student participation. These two processes should be seen as complementary and both methods of quality assurance are essential for the development of higher education. Because programme quality assurance is of the greatest importance for students this cannot be substituted by a purely institution level approach to quality assurance.
The European dimension
For quality assurance the goal of the European dimension should be to achieve transparency, comparability and compatibility of quality assurance systems, not to replace them, recognising that there is a variation in the background of the higher education systems in Europe and on the national perspective on quality assurance and accreditation.
Therefore cooperation should be established, where compatible procedures and common standards and guidelines for quality assurance can be agreed on. These should be developed to encompass a wide range of quality assurance systems, as long as these secure a minimum level assurance of the quality of higher education. This cooperation is also needed for exchange of best practice in the systems of programme and institutional quality assurance. The cooperation should aim at recognition of quality assurance systems using the agreed standards, procedures and guidelines. Common procedures and guidelines deal with the way in which quality assurance agencies function and the methodology they use. Common standards are defined as minimum level and degree requirements in the form of learning outcomes.
At the European level there should be an organised network of national quality assurance and accreditation agencies to facilitate this sharing of best practice and cooperation and the establishment of common standards, procedures and guidelines, leading to mutual recognition. This network subjects its members to peer review to give suggestions on their development and to assure recognition outside of the national context. This peer review should be conducted by a group comprising of other quality assurance agencies, HEI associations and ESIB.
Additionally there are and there will be regional and thematic accreditors. To enhance the quality of education and the mobility of students and graduates in Europe their work has to be linked to the national quality assurance systems in Europe. Via the aforementioned network a European system of meta-accreditation of these accreditors has to be created. This meta-accreditation system should ensure basic principles and it should assess accreditors according to a set of procedural criteria and standards.
The global level
There is currently a great emphasis placed on co-operation between quality assurance agencies and structures in a European context as a result of a number of initiatives including regional networks and the Bologna Process. However as mobility on a global level continues to develop and expand there will be an increasing need for greater co-operation, communication and mutual recognition at this wider level. ESIB believes that this co-operation needs to be expanded and strengthened as soon as possible and as at the European level should be based on the recognition of the wide range of quality assurance systems, by seeking transparency and comparability rather than uniformity.
Any such co-operation should include all actors in the field of quality assurance and accreditation. To achieve this, UNESCO should develop as soon as possible, a review process of quality assurance agencies and accreditators which are active at the global level. The review process should function on the basis of peer review. To prepare for this review process and code of good practice for global quality assurance agencies and accreditators should be developed. In this manner transparency could be brought to a global level.
Adopted at the 45th Board Meeting in Porto Santo, Portugal, November 2003