EU: Tempus puts spotlight on quality

A new study published by the European Commission reviews European support for quality assurance in higher education in countries supported through its Tempus programme. Seven detailed case studies from Morocco, Egypt, Croatia, Russia, Bosnia and Kazakhstan bear testimony to the programme's considerable achievements but also illustrate specific problems these countries face in implementing quality assurance mechanisms that can support continuously maintained excellence in knowledge societies.

Quality assurance has become an increasingly dominant theme in higher education in the past 10 years and international processes play an important role in the way quality assurance is interpreted and implemented. This applies to countries within the European Union as well as to those surrounding it where decentralisation, economic hardship and soaring access figures have outdated previously adequate quality control mechanisms. Largely as a result of the Bologna process, many universities in these countries consult European partners as sources of expertise, inspiration and good practice.

The EU Tempus programme, with its long and established history of developing cooperative networks between European universities and their counterparts in neighbouring regions, is a widely used vehicle for such exchange of experiences. This week, the EU Directorate General for Education and Culture is convening a conference in Cairo on quality assurance in higher education. Some 250 participants from Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Central Asia will discuss the topic and comment on the draft of the Tempus study.

The study, Bringing out the best in education, shows that the evolution of quality assurance is at an early stage in many of the 27 Tempus partner countries. While accreditation is universal and often involves some form of self-assessment, the accreditation process does not necessarily permeate institutions with a quality culture. The concept of quality enhancement and the involvement of key stakeholders, such as students and employers, tends to be limited and, in the case of employers, is relatively rare.

The results also suggest that in some countries and institutions there may be a gap between the formal legal requirements and the actual implementation of quality assurance. Laws may have been adopted but this is not always a guarantee anything has happened.

In many countries, there is a lack of publicly available, transparent information about the quality assurance process and its outcomes; this also applies to accreditation. While higher education institutions have a good understanding and often receive feedback with the results, the publication of information for students, employers and the public seems to be less universal.

The review concludes that in many countries there is a need to speed up the development of genuinely independent accreditation, easily accessible quality assurance agencies and the associated provision of public information on procedures and codes of practice. In the interest of transparency, national and institutional performance indicators should also be published.

Quality assurance units and offices in institutions tend to be inadequately staffed. Programmes for academic and administrative staff development should be launched and resources should be earmarked for the ongoing professional development of university staff. Likewise, central information systems, a key to good decision making, are underdeveloped in many universities. These must be upgraded while at the same time institutional intranets should be used more intensively and effectively for communication, teaching and learning.

There is also an urgent need to develop institutional autonomy and responsibility for curriculum development and programme management within parameters established at a national level.

Having said this, Tempus has helped to establish genuinely independent national quality assurance and accreditation agencies and assisted these agencies in creating effective up-to-date codes of practice that higher education institutions can implement according to their particular structure and needs. The case studies show excellent examples of how much can be achieved in challenging environments and the review recommends this experience be exploited in future projects.

It also recommends that the programme helps to produce materials and courses for staff development and training for all levels and types of staff. One focal area is leadership courses for senior managers of universities - rectors, vice-rectors, deans, heads of departments. Academic staff need training in the principles of quality assurance, approaches to curriculum development, new teaching methods and general professional skills updating. Finally, priority support should be reserved for courses for senior administrators working in the field of quality assurance and associated administrative areas.

The review warns, however, that although European models for quality assurance can be used as a powerful source of guidance and inspiration, they must never simply be copied in a foreign context. Quality assurance models and mechanisms must be strongly rooted in the academic traditions and culture of a country or even an institution. Assistance must help develop the capacities to design, not just copy and implement quality enhancement and assurance mechanisms.

* John Reilly and Ard Jongsma are authors of the report.

Bringing out the best in education - Draft version
A final version will be available after the Cairo conference