2004 General Paper on agreed set of standards, procedures and guidelines at European level

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This is the last of four papers that ESIB produces for the E4 (ESIB, EUA, ENQA, EURASHE) meetings in order to ensure the effective input of ESIB’s view relating to the mandate given to the four organisations at the Berlin Ministerial Summit in September 2003 relating to quality assurance and accreditation. The second paper gave a general overview to the mandate on standards, procedures and guidelines, in this paper we have added a more description of ESIBs  opinion on it.

Mandate from Ministers in Berlin:

“At the European level, Ministers call upon ENQA through its members, in cooperation with the EUA, EURASHE and ESIB, to develop an agreed set of standards, procedures and guidelines on 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.

Standards refer to minimum level and degree requirements in the form of learning outcomes Beside this, they should also serve the purpose of quality enhancement and improvement.

The first and most important issue when tackling this question within the context of the Bologna Process is defining what the mandate given in the Berlin Communiqué actually refers to: European standards or European reference points for these standards that are still outlined at the national and institutional level. If it is the former then it is probably too large a mandate to fulfill within the 15 month period leading towards the Bergen Ministerial Summit. It could also be argued whether this was what the Ministers meant by their Communiqué and the full implications of this have been adequately considered and could be something discussed further in Bergen and fulfilled leading towards the following Summit. In the meantime an achievable goal can be a common set of reference points at the European level by which the national standards, guidelines and procedures can be measured.

ESIB’s quality assurance policy paper would support this desire for reference points rather than a European set of standards: “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. The cooperation should aim at recognition of quality assurance systems using the agreed standards, procedures and guidelines.

Two sorts of standards with a different way of development, both as important for enhancement of good quality education.

Generic standards: general competences students should gain for a specific level and profile of qualifications. (e.g. general standards of a 1st or 2nd cycle degree). Development of these standards should be done in line with the development of Qualification Frameworks and be descriptive rather than prescriptive.

Specific standards: these standards are linked to the specific content of education programmes. Standards in this field should be seen as reference points. These reference points should not be developed in a top-down way by a quality assurance or accreditation agency that also develops the generic standards since this would make the workload for the agency unnecessarily bureaucratic and the standards static and inflexible. The specific content related standards should preferably be developed by experts from the scientific field for related programmes of different (national and international) HEIs.


Procedures and guidelines

Common procedures and guidelines deal with the way in which quality assurance agencies function and the methodology they use. Hereafter the principles will be explained which in ESIBs point of view should become the common shared procedures and guidelines for quality assurance within the European Higher Education Area.

The goal of quality assurance is to improve education. It should therefore take place on all levels of education (course, programme, institutional and all its sub-divisions) and be a continuous process.


The process of quality assurance

The process of quality assurance should consist of three different steps.

Step one is to develop criteria or standards of quality, which will be used in the further process of quality assurance. In this step the criteria should be based on the views of the external expert team and the academic community (including students).

Step two is the internal accreditation or self-evaluation of the individual program. This results in 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. The 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 the third step is an external accreditation report. In this step it is also possible to get feedback and recommendations about individual programs. The result of the entire 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.


The levels of quality assurance

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 choice on reliable and accurate information.

A national agency 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. Such a system of audit should look at all aspects of the academic provision at that level and should be used by the institution to maintain and improve the quality of all programmes. Also aspects of other levels within the institution that have a vital impact on the quality of programmes have to be taken into account in the audit.

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. The external audit should be undertaken by external panels, whose members should be as independent as possible and include students as full members. Nevertheless, the 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.

An external expert team mainly checks if the intentions of programmes as defined by the institution/programme and explained in self-study reports are estimated in line with minimal standards (especially for the intended profile/level).


Institutional level

Because the programme quality assurance is of the greatest importance for students this cannot be substituted by a purely institutional level approach to quality assurance. Nevertheless, ESIB also sees a great subsidiary value in quality assurance on the institutional level. 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 whole institutional community.

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 internal quality assurance work should be carried out by internal bodies consisting of professors, teachers, staff and students that have to be set up at all levels within the institution. A coordinating body should be set up at the institutional level to monitor the quality assurance processes and comprise the missions and goals into a cohesive institutional strategy. This body should be accountable to the decision making bodies and the HEI 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. Also on the institutional level audits by an external body, which could be the national quality assurance agency, have to be undertaken. This audit would review the HEI governing bodies and management, internal quality mechanisms as well as student support structures within the institution that cover more than one programme and the overall quality of student life and student activity at the institution.

On a European level it’ s not possible nor desirable to formulate an extensive list of aspects of higher education programmes and institutes that have influence on it’ s quality and thus should be included in the process of QA. Nevertheless, a limited number of aspects that are of universal importance for good quality education can be defined as guidelines for quality assurance:

  • Mission and goals of programmes and institutions
  • Quality of content of education
  • Quality of the education process
  • Relation between education and research
  • Results for graduates (satisfaction, employability)
  • Quality of the learning process (achievability)
  • Internal QA process of education
  • Internal QA procedures of teaching personal
  • Governance/leadership
  • Participation of students in all decision making bodies (on all levels)
  • Internationalisation
  • Educational facilities
  • Equality
  • Access provision
  • Use of funds


Adopted at the 46th Board Meeting in Banja Luka, Bosnia-Herzegovina, April 2004


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