EU: Can quality assurance foster creativity?

Quality assurance in higher education is often linked to standards, measurements, assessment and control. Setting standards for quality, however, should not diminish the importance of another crucial dimension of higher education: maintaining and developing a capacity to change, look forward, and be geared towards enhancement without fearing that thinking outside the box (of standards) might not be rewarded as a quality 'indicator' by either internal or external quality bodies.

Fostering creativity in European higher education is also vested with particular importance in the context of the Lisbon objectives, which have the ambition of transforming Europe into the most competitive knowledge-based society worldwide. Properly understood, the Lisbon agenda encourages institutions to be competitive and looks at education and research as key tools for economic development. Therefore it holds the potential to encourage creativity and, more broadly, the capacity to think beyond established rules and foster the development of experimental learning processes that may still have to demonstrate their capacity to produce interesting and innovative outcomes.

Advocating increased institutional autonomy and sustaining a model of diversity that takes into account cultural backgrounds and specificity of national systems would be a key element for balancing the potential negative effects of standardisation. Following several projects on quality assurance for higher education institutions in a European context, the European University Association is currently conducting the Quality Assurance in Higher Education Change Agenda project or QAHECA. It is carried out in partnership with the Higher Education Academy in Britain, the quality assurance agency in Germany and the National University of Ireland in Maynooth.

The project gathers 30 higher education institutions and quality assurance agencies from across Europe and aims to develop a methodology which would be 'creativity friendly' and promote a balance between being open to positive change while complying with quality assurance requirements.

Building on the EUA's creativity project, QAHECA has taken as a starting point concerns raised about the potentially detrimental effects of quality assurance processes: over-bureaucratisation, time-consuming procedures, standardisation, 'quality assurance fatigue', and compliance stifling risk-taking and creativity. The project will tackle these aspects by drafting a methodology to focus on integrating creativity as a central dimension of quality culture for internal and external quality processes.

The first in a series of three seminars took place in York on 10-11 April when the participants were invited to draw on their positive experiences to design ideal processes that would support the future evolution of higher education and quality assurance. Some recurrent and important elements can already be identified: being forward-looking rather than the opposite in thinking about standards (that is, anticipating future changes in higher education), integrating students at all levels of quality-related processes, and tackling the creativity challenge in external and internal quality. The next step will call on participants to develop the methodology as a toolkit to be adapted by each institution.

The 30 participants are committed to testing it in their own institutions and will report back during the project's last seminar in Maynooth next February. Final results are expected in mid-2009.

The main focus of the project is to examine how change in higher education can be supported by quality assurance processes, and how the latter could serve to develop sustainable creative attitudes in the higher education community. This capacity to consider change - which always goes hand in hand with risk-taking - would help higher education institutions and quality assurance agencies see their daily work as being guided not by bureaucratic principles but by enlightened academic values that inform all teaching, learning and research.

* Thérèse Zhang works at the EUA on projects in the field of quality assurance. She is also involved in the development of the EUA Council for Doctoral Education.

More information on QAHECA
Details of the EUA creativity project