Involving students in quality assurance

The QUEST for Quality for Students project, run by the European Students’ Union, has analysed student views on the quality of higher education and identified areas in which students can become increasingly involved in quality assurance and enhancement processes.

A research team worked hard on this project for three years and presented the final outcomes on 31 October 2013. The findings have been published in four research publications and one handbook that can all be downloaded for free on the project website.

Quality is a multi-dimensional concept

The debate on the quality of higher education has often been led by governments that link this concept to economic indicators, such as the employability of graduates and efficiency.

That understanding of the concept of higher education quality from the policy-making arena has been challenged by student unions, higher education institutions and teacher unions.

Students have a multi-dimensional understanding of the quality of higher education, as became clear in the QUEST project. Most students see higher education as a way to advance their personal growth that prepares them for active participation in society, and not merely as employment-related.

Student involvement in quality assurance

It was interesting to see that students were unaware of many quality assurance and enhancement activities, especially at the European level.

Although most students participate in such work, only a certain number of them see the outcome of it resulting in changes that are relevant to them. This means that the outcomes of quality assurance activities could be more transparent and open to all participants.

Those activities should not be limited to teaching and learning processes because the quality of higher education is also influenced by other factors.

A Students Experts’ Pool on Quality Assurance was created in order to support student engagement across Europe. More than 60 students were registered as members of the pool at the end of 2013, half of them women.

These students are trained especially for participation in various quality assurance activities and to support fellow students in becoming student reviewers. The pool was created in 2009, and has proved to be an excellent forum for students to share their experiences and ideas on the subject.

One of the key goals of the QUEST project was to provide students and student representatives with knowledge about how they can affect the quality assurance of higher education.

It is hoped that at least 1,000 students will benefit from the training materials developed as part of QUEST and the Students Experts’ Pool on Quality Assurance over the next two years.

Trust, participation and ownership

The QUEST team also found that trust, participation and ownership were the most important values for improving quality in higher education.

Students must be included at all levels in quality assurance and decision-making to improve the quality of higher education further. Student-centred learning must also be adequately implemented by higher education institutions.

Quality assurance makes a difference because it can support recognition mechanisms, transparency and the development of good practices in higher education. Meaningful quality assurance systems can drive real changes forward in higher education. A so-called ‘quality culture’ in higher education can only be established with an active student participation.

A vision for the future

The European Students’ Union is an active partner in developing the future of quality assurance of higher education in Europe and its representatives will, as such, use the outcomes of QUEST in their discussions with other stakeholders in the field.

This project will, for example, be an important input for the revision of the European Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area.

However, the QUEST project was only the first milestone in researching and developing a framework for higher education quality.

It provides policy-makers with an insight into student views on the subject, but further research must be conducted on how student expectations towards higher education are generated and how the concept of quality is transformed, especially in relation to external influences.

* Fernando Miguel Galán Palomares is the vice-chair of the European Students’ Union. The QUEST project was a valuable learning experience for all the partners that were involved in the consortium and would not have been possible without financial support from the European Commission through the Lifelong Learning Programme.