Europe's E4 Group of leading higher education associations last week published a joint proposal for "Revised Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area", aimed at clearing up potential confusion and making a more direct link to the learning and teaching process.
The document focused on internal and external quality assurance as well as quality assurance agencies.
Recommendations include that institutions implement policies that should be made public and form part of their strategic management. Teaching standards were also covered: institutions should assure themselves of the competence of their lecturers, and have a fair and transparent process for recruiting and developing them.
The E4 Group comprises the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education, the European Students' Union, the European University Association and the European Association of Institutions in Higher Education.
Their proposals - produced together with Education International, BUSINESSEUROPE and the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education - will be discussed at the next Bologna Follow-Up Group meeting in April. They are expected to be adopted at the ministerial meeting of the European Higher Education Area in Armenia in 2015.
Fundamental shift needed
The document said that responding to diversity and growing expectations for higher education required a fundamental shift in its provision. Much had changed since the current set of European standards and guidelines for quality assurance in the European Higher Education Area - ESG - was adopted in 2005.
Now there was a more student-centred approach to learning and teaching, embracing flexible learning paths and recognising competence gained outside formal curricula.
Even institutions themselves were becoming more diverse in their missions, modes of educational provision and cooperation, including embracing increasing internationalisation, digital learning and new forms of delivery.
Policies and processes are the main pillars of a coherent institutional quality assurance system, and as such they support departments, organisational units, staff and students. They also support academic integrity and freedom, and guard against intolerance and discrimination against students and staff.
The document recommended that all institutions put in place processes for the design and approval of programmes, and as these were the core of the teaching mission, the processes should include involvement of students and other stakeholders and should be subject to formal institutional approval.
Careful consideration of the design and outcomes assessment of programmes was vital, and their implementation should respect the diversity and needs of students, and encourage a sense of autonomy in the learner while ensuring adequate guidance and support from teachers.
Other guidelines dealt with academic staff, and the importance of encouraging innovation in teaching methods as well as the use of new technologies. Opportunities should be offered to promote their development, and scholarly activities to strengthen the link between education and research needed to be encouraged.
Institutions needed to provide resources to assist student learning, such as libraries, study facilities and infrastructure, and human support like counsellors, tutors and other advisers.
The document said the needs of diverse student populations ought to be considered, such as mature, part-time, employed and international students, as well as those with learning disabilities - and that such diversity should be taken into account when allocating, planning and providing resources and personnel support.
Ongoing monitoring and periodic review of programmes was critical to ensure that they were achieving their objectives and were up to date, and these should be revised when necessary after analysis.
The document said it was important that all institutions underwent external quality assurance reviews, in line with the ESG, on a cyclical basis.
"Quality assurance is a continuous process that does not end with the external feedback or report or its follow-up process within the institution," it stressed. This should be carried out professionally, consistently and transparently.
Any outcomes or judgments made as a result should be based on explicit and published criteria, and should be accessible to the academic community, external partners and other interested individuals.
Agencies that carried out external quality assurance activities should have an established legal basis and be formally recognised as such by competent public authorities. They should also publish regular reports describing and analysing their findings, and be fully accountable to stakeholders.
The E4 Group said its revision of the 2005 standards and guidelines had included several consultations involving key stakeholder organisations and ministries.
The proposal, they said in the foreword to the document, "reflects a consensus among all the organisations involved on how to take forward quality assurance in the European Higher Education Area and, as such, provides a firm basis for successful implementation".
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