Quality mechanisms

The quality of university education has been judged over the years in many ways. Some evaluations are objective and some less so. Alongside institutional and national reviews, there has been a sustained effort made to develop consistent approaches to assessing the quality of higher education across Europe in more recent years.

European Standards and Guidelines

It was a significant progress in developing a European approach to quality reviews of education when the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (ESG) were published, which take a positive and proactive approach to the concept of quality. The ESG encourage universities to develop a culture that recognises the importance of quality and quality assurance in their work and provides support on approaches that can enable this. The ESG identify the processes and principles by which quality should be assured and enhanced rather than defining what constitutes a good quality education. The ESG state that reviews should happen both internally and externally. Both internal and external review processes may be defined by nationally agreed standards, but universities can have their own internal procedures. The ESG cover approaches to:
  • Institutional quality assurance
  • External reviews
  • The governance, direction and methods of national quality agencies

Why are reviews important?

  • They can provide assurance to funders, namely governments, that public money is qqbeing wisely spent and provide evidence to help develop national policies.
  • They can provide information to students, prospective students, employers and the qqgeneral public on standards and quality of experience within institutions.
  • They can provide assurances within institutions to students and staff that they are qqmeeting the necessary requirements.
  • They can provide an opportunity for students and staff to reflect on current practices qqand plan improvements and enhancements to the student learning experience.

What types of reviews are there?

Internal reviewAn internal review can provide an opportunity for the university to become aware of problem areas and start addressing problems before they become unmanageable. Some types of internal review processes might be prescribed by national arrangement but the university might undertake others, simply because it believes that they are effective and useful. Universities should have in place internal procedures for the approval, monitoring and periodic review of programmes and awards and these arrangements should include participation of students in quality assurance activities.
External reviewsUniversities within a country or region should also develop a system for external reviews. External reviews will usually be managed by a national quality assurance agency. The esg state that national quality processes should look at assessments, teaching staff, learning resources and student support, information management and public information. National arrangements might cover other aspects as well.
Approaches to reviewsA review can follow an inspection model where teaching practices, for example, are directly observed, or an audit model where institutional processes are investigated. Different approaches will be adopted depending on national circumstances and priorities. A review can be conducted at a subject level, e.g. all engineering provisions across a country will be reviewed, or at an institutional level. Other reviews might take place around particular areas of interest, e.g. first year experience or student support services.

Review processes

For external reviews, the ESG state that the processes, criteria and procedures used by national quality agencies should be pre-defined and publically available. These processes are normally expected to include an external assessment by a group of experts including, as appropriate, student members. Processes should be fit for purpose and should include the provision of appropriate training and briefing for experts and the participation of students.

Typically an external review might consist then of an institution preparing a reflective document that gathers evidence of its quality procedures and provision, with a self-reflection of where its strengths lie and where they are addressing issues of concern. The preparation of this self-reflection might be undertaken by a specific working group and might represent a substantial piece of work. This document, collecting a range of evidence, would normally be submitted by the institution to the national quality assurance agency.

A review would then involve a quality review visit where a panel of experts, usually academics from other institutions, employers, international experts and student reviewers, would spend time in the institution investigating the provision within the institution in relation to the reflective document. How they spend their time might be prescribed or it might be something the institution can influence, e.g. how much time they spend talking to particular groups of students. It will usually involve the panel meeting with different groups of students and staff and may also include direct observation of provision, e.g. classroom observations. The team might spend a week at an institution or come for a few separate visits. The role of staff from the national quality agency can vary. Usually they will offer support for the review panel but not be a member of the panel, therefore not contributing to the panel judgement. Occasionally they can be involved in making the decision where they are. This would indicate a scenario of an inspection model rather than peer review.

The outcome of the review would be some form of a judgement. This might involve some sort of grade scale, e.g. excellent, satisfactory, poor and/or other descriptive comments. The descriptive comments might include recommendations for action and the highlighting of good practice. The comments might be short and written for a wide audience including the public and/or extensive and written for professionals within the institution. At least some of the judgements, certainly any grades, should be in the public domain and some review processes will involve requirements for institutions to make the findings widely available. The national quality assurance agency will usually have responsibility for reporting outcomes of reviews nationally and to governments and may be involved in making recommendations for reflection and follow up at a national level.

There will usually be some form of institutional response to the judgement, perhaps a requirement for them to submit an action plan addressing concerns and in cases where there is an unsatisfactory outcome of a review there may be more serious consequences, e.g. funding might be affected or permission to offer a course of study might be withdrawn.

Whilst other types of reviews such as internal reviews, national subject reviews etc., might operate differently, they often mirror some of these key aspects such as reflective documents and review teams.

Other approaches to reviews

The European University Association (EUA) offers an Institutional Evaluation Programme (IEP), with the possibility of doing reviews at a European level. These reviews follow the same principles as the esg. Additionally, the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA) reviews the operation and procedures of national quality assurance agencies against the esg. Quality assurance agencies which undertake successfully such a review can be entered into enqa’s register, called enqar. Quality assurance agencies in the register can undertake reviews in another nation if an institution requests it. This might be important for an institution if wanted, for example, a quality judgement against a set of competitors in another country or perhaps in the example of a small specialist institution that wanted a judgement at an international level.

Another aspect of reviews that you might want to be aware of is the activity of professional bodies. On top of all the national and international arrangements institutions might need to undergo, they may also be subject to a review from professional bodies. For example, a university offering an accountancy course that gives exceptions from professional examinations will have to undergo review visits from the professional body for accountancy that awards these qualifications.