7.1. Preliminary remarks

Quality assurance in higher education includes all policies, measures, planned processes and actions through which the quality of higher education is maintained and developed. Quality of higher education can be described as the degree to which the education meets the client’s needs and demands. In this respect higher education has two different clients: students and society.

The expectations of these clients differ depending on whether it regards academic (science/research-driven) study programmes or hpe (labour market’s demand-driven) programmes. It is, therefore, obvious that by putting the concept ‘quality’ into practice the further filling in of ‘quality’ differs as well.

In the assessment of academic programmes international scientific standards and research requirements are the leitmotiv whereas in the assessment of labour market’s demand-driven study programmes the main stress is on occupational standards, being the professional requirements the labour market has agreed on at national level and being the goal the vet-system must aim at.

7.2.     Quality Assurance: basic features

7.2.1. National quality assurance systems in higher education are operational in nearly all the Western European countries. In all these systems, basically regulated by the respective national authorities, one can distinguish an external and an internal component. At national level quality assurance systems contain arrangements for a systematic evaluation of establishments and study programmes.

Six aspects can be distinguished being the basic and common features of national quality assurance systems in higher education: (1) national coordination by an independent centre/agency, (2) internal evaluation resulting in self-assessment reports, (3) intermittent evaluation by external experts partially based on establishment’s self-assessment findings, (4) publication of evaluation-outcomes including recommendations for improvement, (5) implementation of the recommendations and (6) assessment of the appropriateness and effectiveness of the quality assurance methods and procedures (meta-evaluation).

7.2.2. In the organization of quality assurance the key word is ‘independent evaluation’. Quality assurance systems should be independent from state interference, from educational macro-planning policy and from the particular interests of the individual establishments if these interests regard other than quality matters. The reliability of quality assurance systems depends on the independence of the evaluation.[1]

7.2.3. Though quality assurance systems in the hae-sector and in the hpe-sector are basically the same, it is obvious that in the further elaboration differences will occur related to the distinct nature and objectives of  both these types of education. In particular this regards not only the performance-indicators, which structure the quality assessment but also the background or qualification of the external experts involved in the evaluation. In the hae-sector the performance indicators and the experts chosen reflect the scientific and research objectives of its education. In the hpe-sector occupational requirements are the guiding principle.

For that reason some countries have established two distinct national quality assurance bodies or agencies - one for the academic sector and one for the hpe-sector. However this is not necessary since both systems are basically the same. In some of the CEEC-countries it is even not preferable in view of their limited resources.

7.2.4. Regardless of the degree to which educational establishments are autonomous, in every country educational establishments are considered as to be fully accountable to society being the financier and the consumer. Quality assurance systems, therefore, are designed in such a manner that establishments can give that account in a systematic and transparent way. Consequently, the outcomes of evaluations are public.

Accountability in this respect is not only a formal matter. More important than the formal aspect is the social aspect. In particular this regards the hpe-sector being a relatively new phenomenon, which in many CEEC- countries still has to gain social recognition. The experience in EU-countries shows that a systematic approach in quality assurance resulting in public conclusions, furthers a broadly based recognition from society.

7.2.5. The other purpose of national quality assurance systems is the maintenance and development of the quality. Since this is by definition the major concern of every establishment, quality assurance is a quality-driven rather than an accreditation driven-process. This implies that at establishment level the organization and the planning of quality assurance are not determined by the accreditation-cycle but by the establishment itself, since quality is not only a major but also a constant concern of the establishment.[2]

Internal evaluation will provide the establishment with relevant information about its own performance. In particular the (causes of) the weak and strong points are identified by assessing (e.g.): the feasibility of the strategy, the adequacy of the educational objectives (relevant, achievable, testable?), the relevance of the study programme, the effectiveness of the education- and assessment-methods, the competence of the staff, the effectiveness of both the internal and the external (information) network and the efficiency in the use of human, financial and other resources.

Based on the conclusions from this analysis arrangements are defined and implemented in order to further the quality of the establishment and its study programmes. During consecutive internal evaluations it will be verified whether these arrangements really have been implemented and, if so, whether they have resulted into the intended effects. Internal evaluation or self-assessment is, therefore, considered as to be an indispensable management-tool to assure the quality. For that reason the planning and the organization of internal evaluation are designed in such a way that quality assurance and institutional decision-making are integrated.

7.2.6. Despite these basic similarities of Western European quality assurance systems, a unified Western European system of evaluation based upon predefined uniform standards does not exist.[3] Quality assurance systems in higher education at the most are unified at national level. However, all Western European quality assurance systems are designed from the basic principle that the establishment is responsible for the quality of education and that the assessment of this quality must be transparent, systematic, achievable and verifiable. [4]

7.2.7. Quality assurance systems provide for meta-evaluation mechanisms to evaluate their appropriateness. This function is often embodied in the Inspectorate for Higher Education. The Inspectorate does not evaluate education, but it evaluates the methodology, techniques and effectiveness of quality assurance arrangements.

Moreover, the Inspectorate monitors whether -and if so- to what extent establishments have implemented the recommendations resulting from the evaluation. In fact the Inspectorate is acting as advisor to both the Minister (how to improve the pre-conditions14) and the establishments (how to improve their performance). The Inspectorate actually acts as an independent advisory body not subordinated to the ministerial hierarchy and only accountable to the minister. In countries where the Inspectorate does not play the above-mentioned role, the meta-evaluation is organized by the national quality assessment body referred to in section 7.2.1.

7.2.8. Systematic introduction of quality assurance in education forces the educational establishments to define very clearly their objectives and to involve the ‘outside world’ in the assessment of their performance. In that respect quality assurance will lead to a demarcation of the educational sectors each of them with their own (recognized) identity. This is relevant in particular to the hpe-sector in CEEC-countries since this sector still has to secure a full position in the education system and in the social appreciation.

[1] Licensing of state funded courses can be a macro-planning tool and in EU countries it is often used as such.

[2]   Accreditation, obviously, is related to quality but its main purpose is to award formally the outcomes from the evaluation.

[3]   Although no ‘international standards’ are formalized for higher education, there is a common international vision on “how things should be done” and on “how things shouldn’t be done”.

[4]   Though the State is not directly responsible for the quality of education since it delegates this responsibility to the educational professionals the State,

     i.e. the  Ministry of Education, still is responsible for setting up appropriate preconditions in order to provide the establishments with enabling opportunities for  reaching the quality required.