Students are essential to achieving quality in universities

Despite the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area requiring the full participation of students in internal and external quality assurance (QA) processes, achieving any kind of meaningful or valuable involvement of students in QA processes remains a challenge, especially when it comes to internal QA.

In the European landscape, a consensus has been arrived at over the last two decades that to ensure the fulfilment of the diverse missions of higher education, especially to adequately equip students with the skills needed in a complex and fast-evolving society, a student-centred learning paradigm needs to be implemented.

This is even more important as global attention increasingly turns to the quality of (higher) education, which is also expected to contribute towards the achievement of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

However, although significant progress has been made in recent years, the lack of a general, systematic way for students to participate in internal QA processes can be a barrier to this objective.

Valuing student participation

Student participation in internal QA processes and in developing the indicators used to monitor the student centred-learning approach ensures that study programmes result in desired learning outcomes in an inclusive learning environment that fits students’ needs and expectations.

Despite the multiple benefits for all parties of involving students in quality assurance, higher education institutions still face challenges when it comes to treating students as equal members of the academic community. The unfortunate reality is that students are often treated as mere ‘information providers’ and not active members of the academic community.

A survey of our National Unions of Students as part of the Quality Assurance Fit for the Future (QA-FIT) project, coordinated by the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA) and run together with the E4 Group organisations and the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education (EQAR), found that 59% of students agree that not being seen as equal members is a challenge to the implementation of the SDGs, with tokenistic student participation in QA perceived as a challenge by 63%.

Even when seen as information providers, student feedback is sometimes treated in a tokenistic manner as a ‘tick box’ exercise. According to our national students’ unions, 29% of students cannot usually participate in the evaluation of teaching quality on a regular basis and 79% say follow-up to student evaluations is not the norm. This lack of action deters students from actively participating in trying to shape their learning, as it might end up having no impact.

More face-to-face meetings and interaction

Student involvement in quality assurance processes often takes the form of membership in programme development committees, self-evaluation report teams, learning outcome development committees and expert panels. However, in some cases, this involvement is limited to mere attendance rather than active engagement.

To improve the quality of student involvement in quality assurance, more face-to-face meetings, interaction and training are necessary. This will allow for a more meaningful exchange of ideas between students and higher education institution staff, leading to more valuable feedback and the development of a relationship based on trust.

Higher education institutions should prioritise creating opportunities for students to engage in more personal and interactive ways, such as through small group discussions.

Feedback and impactful follow-up

In addition to creating opportunities for personal and interactive student involvement in quality assurance processes, it is crucial to follow up on these interactions with constant feedback regarding the outcomes.

The publication Bologna with Student Eyes, published in 2020, also highlights that students often feel that their involvement in quality assurance processes is pointless and that they lack trust that their input will lead to any meaningful change.

Providing regular feedback to students regarding survey results or other discussed matters is essential to gain their trust and demonstrate that their opinions and contributions are valued by higher education institutions.

The lack of sustainable feedback loops has proven even more problematic during the COVID pandemic, when combined efforts were needed to adapt the teaching process to an emergency digital mode. The context, nevertheless, provided useful lessons on the added value of co-creating solutions.

Enhancing knowledge of QA among students

The publication Bologna with Student Eyes indicates that many students lack information regarding quality assurance processes.

To address this, higher education institutions should provide clear and comprehensive explanations of the main aims of involving students in quality assurance processes and engage student representatives in the whole policy cycle of QA, from planning the processes to analysing the results, formulating recommendations and implementing, monitoring and evaluating them.

The move towards greater student participation, in QA and beyond, is also in line with developments in understanding student participation as a fundamental value within the Bologna Process.

Furthermore, to increase student knowledge of QA, higher education institutions should make relevant policies and guidelines readily available and offer training and support to students who are involved in quality assurance activities.

Showing students examples of how their peers are involved in quality assurance or governing processes can be a powerful motivator for student involvement. In some countries, the culture of student union participation in QA is strong and students are actively working to improve the quality of education at an institutional level. In some cases, student unions have their own pool of student experts in QA who can help with both internal and external QA processes.

Developing a QA culture

The issues discussed above are also a matter of the quality assurance culture within higher education institutions and across countries as a whole.

The more developed the quality assurance culture and processes in a country, the more active, valuable and meaningful the involvement of students in all processes is likely to be. However, this requires significant time, effort and capacity-building as well as the willingness of all stakeholders to commit to it. We believe allocating these resources is not only valuable, but vital if we are to adapt higher education to the challenges it is called upon to tackle.

Ana Gvritishvili is an Executive Committee member and Horia Onita is vice-president of the European Students’ Union.