Sweden seeks to become full member of ENQA once again

The Swedish Higher Education Authority (UKÄ) has applied to become a full member of the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education or ENQA. It has been an affiliate member since 2014, having previously been a full member for 12 years.

The application involved sending in a self-evaluation report and UKÄ is also seeking inclusion in the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education (EQAR).

Full membership of ENQA and notably the legal instrument EQAR will make it easier for Swedish higher education institutions to enter into agreements with universities that have signed these agreements, and in particular establishing joint degrees between Swedish institutions and European institutions will now become an opportunity for Sweden.

It would end the current underlying suspicion among colleague universities in Europe when entering into collaborations that something might be fishy with the Swedish system, since they are not a full member of ENQA.

The self-evaluation follows the ENQA guidelines, giving an overview of higher education in Sweden, the laws and regulations governing higher education, programme and degree structure and the structure and functioning of today’s quality assurance system and notably how this is in compliance with the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area, which is part of the Bologna Process.

UKÄ Director General Anders Söderholm said: “UKÄ has chosen to undergo ENQA’s review for membership at a time when both the self-evaluation process itself and ENQA’s assessment of our quality assurance activities can make valuable contributions to our own organisational development, as well as to our work to support the quality processes of higher education institutions.

“There are also clear points of contact with UKÄ’s government assignment of an external evaluation of the national quality assurance system, and with the ongoing revision of UKÄ’s internal quality assurance processes.”

The quality assurance activities of UKÄ comprise institutional reviews of the higher education institutions’ quality assurance processes, programme evaluations, appraisal of applications for degree-awarding powers, and thematic evaluations. Although they differ in scope and focus, the activities are conducted within the national quality assurance system established in 2016.

The system has been developed in accordance with the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area, the Swedish Higher Education Act and the Swedish Higher Education Ordinance.

In addition to quality assurance of higher education and research, UKÄ is tasked with the legal supervision of higher education institutions, and with monitoring developments and trends in the higher education sector. The agency is also responsible for statistics in the higher education sector. These activities also contribute to the national quality assurance system.

Review process

“The review will evaluate the way in which and to what extent UKÄ fulfils the requirements of the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area. Consequently, the review will provide information to the board of ENQA to aid its consideration of whether membership of UKÄ should be granted, and to EQAR to support UKÄ application to the register,” ENQA said in statement.

The review panel is composed of the following members:

  • • Tue Vinther-Jørgensen, chief consultant, Ministry of Higher Education and Science, Denmark – chair and quality assurance professional (ENQA nominee).

  • • Patrick van den Bosch, quality assurance advisor, Flemish Council of Universities and University Colleges – Quality Assurance Unit, Belgium – secretary and quality assurance professional (ENQA nominee).

  • • Melita Kovacevic, full professor at the department for speech and language pathology, faculty for education and rehabilitation sciences, University of Zagreb, Croatia – panel member and academic (European University Association nominee).

  • • Gohar Hovhannisyan, executive committee member of the European Students’ Union (ESU); PhD student at the Armenian State University of Economics, Armenia – panel member and student (ESU nominee, member of the European Students’ Union Quality Assurance Student Experts Pool).

Sweden lost full membership of ENQA in 2012 after the Swedish national quality assurance system for higher education was introduced in 2011.

The new system was widely criticised by academics, students and international experts, as noted in a paper by Lena Adamson, associate professor of psychology at Stockholm University, and fulfilled only three of 14 standards in the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area, which was adopted at the ministerial conference in Bologna in 2005.

The education ministry was the target of criticism both for its previous decision to introduce learning outcomes-based assessment and for undermining higher education autonomy.

Evaluation controversy

The government had sought to develop a system that would lead to distribution of part of the annual budget for higher education based on a grading of the results. So higher education institutions with top-graded programmes would be allocated more money than their counterparts with low-graded programmes, and institutions with low-graded programmes would be given a year to put their house in order or face withdrawal of their degree-granting powers.

Other problems included a focus on knowledge learned or achieved outcomes, rather than also the skills learned alongside the knowledge, in contravention of the broader approach encouraged by the Bologna Process, which Sweden had supported previously.

Adamson told University World News this week: “I am confident that Sweden now, after more than 10 years, will regain their ENQA membership, given the long experience of quality assurance issues the current leadership at UKÄ has.

“Hopefully this will finally end the rather shameful story of political interference in the Swedish national quality assurance system, which, against all advice was driven by the then higher education minister and undersecretary. I am still amazed over how weak and short-lived the protests from the higher education sector were at the time of these parliamentary decisions.”

Preparing for the European Universities Initiative

Towards the end of the self-evaluation report, the UKÄ declares an ambition to include quality assurance in the European Universities Initiative.

“If the European Universities Initiative develops as intended, higher education institutions must also build their quality assurance systems to reflect student mobility within a programme but across international and institutional borders.

“Like quality assurance agencies in other countries, UKÄ needs to adapt to a new international scene for quality assurance, and this will have an impact on all external quality assurance activities of the Swedish quality assurance system and on the agency itself.

“Therefore, it is an important step for UKÄ to be part of developments in Europe and the project on external quality assurance methodologies for the institutional alliances within the European Universities Initiative,” the self-evaluation says.

Adamson, who was part of developing a quality assurance system for masters and doctoral programmes, ‘Quality for Learning’, for the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) a number of years back, commented: “EIT addresses similar aims and issues as the European Universities Initiative. It would be excellent if UKÄ could be part of and maybe even lead the development of European quality assurance towards systems that really address our big societal challenges.

“I am also hoping that initiatives like the EIT and the European Universities Initiative at some point will lead to a European degree.”