HE quality assurance systems need to be robust and flexible

A couple of weeks ago UNESCO convened the first session of the Intergovernmental Conference of States Parties to the Global Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications Concerning Higher Education (GRC).

Adopted by the UNESCO General Conference in November 2019, and entered into force in March 2023, the GRC is the first United Nations treaty on higher education with a global scope.

It establishes universal principles for fair, transparent and non-discriminatory recognition of qualifications, significantly placing particular emphasis on the recognition of non-traditional modes of learning, such as online learning, transnational education, short periods of study and prior learning, and on the role of quality assurance for building trust in qualifications.

The successful and widespread implementation of the GRC, currently ratified by 22 countries, is therefore crucial in supporting the vision set out by UNESCO at the World Higher Education Conference 2022 centred on fostering “cooperation over competition, diversity over uniformity and flexible learning over traditionally well-structured, hierarchical models of education”.

Key to the successful implementation of the GRC, and the realisation of the UNESCO Roadmap to 2030, will be the response of the quality assurance community when it comes to developing robust and flexible systems that are capable of underpinning global trust in qualifications, regardless of where and how these might have been delivered and studied.

Equally key will be the response of the qualification recognition community to developments in international quality assurance practice.

The multifaceted nature of quality assurance

When trying to understand quality assurance in higher education, it is helpful to distinguish its four overarching dimensions: its purpose, status, scope and process. Each has its own multiple features, variables and questions.

Purpose: It is possible to identify five overarching intertwined but independent functions of quality assurance: gatekeeping, accountability, student protection, enhancement and providing a mark of distinction.

The gatekeeping function is typically exercised to identify education providers that are entitled to award national qualifications and access a range of benefits, such as public funding and eligibility to recruit international students. Professional bodies similarly exercise a gatekeeping function when regulating access to professions through accreditation.

Quality assurance is also associated with holding education providers accountable for the different entitlements granted to them, such as their degree-awarding power, their eligibility to receive public funding or the broader social expectations that might be placed on them. Accountability is key to supporting the gatekeeping function.

Quality assurance systems can be vital for ensuring students get the best possible learning experience, that education institutions prepare graduates who can successfully contribute to society and that students’ investment of time and resources is protected.

The latter is particularly important in education systems where students carry the financial burden for their education, where quality assurance serves to ensure that students, as consumers, get value for money and are supported in making well-informed educational decisions.

Another key function that quality assurance systems can play is that of supporting enhancement or continuous improvement. This is about ensuring education providers are able to identify and act upon areas where they can or need to improve or innovate when it comes to their provision.

Quality assurance bodies engaging in enhancement activities typically support education providers by providing a range of guidance and advice services in different areas of teaching and learning.

Quality assurance can further serve as a mark of distinction. This is quite common in professional fields where accreditation by established professional bodies has long been regarded as an indication of demonstrated quality or excellence. Increasingly, however, we see a broader range of quality assurance bodies offering their accreditation services internationally to providers seeking to improve their international reputation and standing.

Statutory or voluntary: Quality assurance systems can be of a statutory or voluntary nature. Certain quality assurance systems can combine both mandatory and voluntary elements, such as in countries where quality assurance or accreditation is mandatory, but education providers can choose between a range of nationally approved accreditation or quality assurance bodies.

The statutory nature of quality assurance is typically linked to its gatekeeping and accountability or student protection functions, while voluntary quality assurance is generally linked to enhancement services and providing a mark of quality.

Scope: Quality assurance systems can vary significantly in the scope of their activity. They can look at whole institutional processes and practices, or focus on specific disciplines or programmes.

Increasingly, in response to the diversification of higher education, quality assurance systems are emerging that focus on specific aspects of institutional activity, for example, specific modes of delivery, such as online learning or transnational education, or on how providers embed key employability skills in their provision or engage in internationalisation activities.

The scope of quality assurance systems is reflected in the standards framework against which education providers are quality assured or accredited.

Process: The process adopted is another distinguishing feature of quality assurance activities. Most quality assurance systems follow a similar process consisting of common steps such as an evidence-based self-assessment report, desk-based analysis of submitted evidence, a site visit and follow-up meeting with key stakeholders, a findings report, follow-up procedures and re-engagement with the process on a cyclical basis.

Different systems might vary in the way they implement each of these steps (for example, the format of self-evaluation, composition of review teams, duration of the process, dissemination of reports and lengths of quality assurance cycles), but the inclusion of these steps can be regarded as the established wisdom of how quality assurance should operate.

This wisdom is embodied in international frameworks such as the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (ESG), the ASEAN Quality Assurance Framework or the INQAAHE Guidelines of Good Practice, which seeks to create a shared understanding and practice of quality assurance.

Some, such as the ESG, also provide guidance on how to implement each step, such as through the involvement of students and international experts in peer review teams and through undertaking quality assurance activity at least every five years.

However, over the past decade we have been starting to see the development of quality assurance systems which diverge from this received wisdom, placing, for example, less reliance on cyclical peer review and involving the kind of metrics-driven, risk-based and outcome-focused monitoring systems that have emerged in Australia and England.

Implications for recognition

As the UNESCO practical guide to the implementation of the GRC reminds us, “good structures for quality assurance of education are crucial for enabling trust in a qualification … Quality assurance provides a foundation upon which trust can be built and from which recognition is possible.”

The diversity of international quality assurance practices highlighted above does pose the question of what type of quality assurance we should be talking about when looking for reassurance about the quality and standards of qualifications.

Traditionally, it has been national statutory quality assurance that international credential evaluators have been looking at to be guided in their qualification recognition decisions. But is there scope for a more flexible approach to the use of quality assurance to inform qualification recognition?

On the one hand, the significant variety, differences and stages of developments of national statutory quality assurance systems do raise questions about the extent to which they can be unquestionably used to inform decisions about international comparability of education standards.

On the other hand, it is possible to wonder whether, in responding to the GRC’s call “to develop better tools and practices for the recognition of higher education qualifications” which are capable of supporting progress towards more inclusive and flexible learning pathways, the international recognition community should be looking at a broader range of quality assurance systems and practices.

Could, for instance, voluntary, thematic quality assurance services provide an additional tool in the toolbox of international credential evaluators?

A shared understanding

The key question is, of course, how to identify those quality assurance systems (statutory or voluntary) that can be relied upon and trusted.

A number of regional and international initiatives have emerged over the past 20 years to help us to identify trustworthy quality assurance bodies. A clear example is represented by the ESG whose key goal is to contribute to the common understanding of quality assurance in the European Higher Education Area and the development of a common framework.

Recently, the International Network for Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education (INQAAHE) has reviewed its Guidelines of Good Practice in quality assurance and created International Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in Tertiary Education, with a view to being able to play a similar role at a global level.

These are important initiatives aimed at contributing to developing a shared understanding of quality assurance at the regional and international level. However, the key challenge for these overarching frameworks is to be able to be sufficiently flexible and inclusive to accommodate a diversity of approaches without the risk of stifling innovation in quality assurance practices and ultimately in education provision.

The previous reference to emerging quality assurance systems diverging from the established wisdom embodied in existing international frameworks is one example.

Key for these attempts to harmonise international quality assurance practice will be the ability to avoid the risk of fossilising practice and thus hindering the development of innovative and effective solutions to emerging shared challenges.

In higher education these challenges include, for example, the need to develop more flexible learning pathways that are capable of widening global access to education and training and responding to the changing skills needs of our global societies.

The international quality assurance and qualification recognition communities have an important responsibility to act as enablers of, rather than obstacles to needed solutions to these challenges.

They will be able to fulfil this responsibility by remaining open to questions regarding quality assurance, reconsidering established practices and doing so through inclusive and open dialogue with all key stakeholders, including education providers, students and employers.

Fabrizio Trifirò is Head of Stakeholder Engagement and International Quality Reviews at Ecctis, the agency that manages the national qualifications recognition function on behalf of the United Kingdom government. At Ecctis he oversees senior international engagement and services aimed at informing international confidence in international qualifications in challenging areas for recognition, such as TNE and TVET. Trifiró sits on the board of directors of the International Network for Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education (INQAAHE), is a member of the Accreditation Committee of the British Accreditation Council and is a reviewer for a number of international quality assurance bodies.