Changes in possibilities and demands of the world outside academia are increasingly challenging the relevance of university education. Knowledge and even structured learning experiences are becoming more accessible in the form of massive open online courses. At the same time, students are graduating into a more competitive environment which rewards multi-dimensional skills, personalities and professional experience – much more than might be developed through the traditional lecture and reading-based teaching. In response to this, alternative programs are springing up that prepare young people for active participation in the world. For example, the highly prestigious Thiel Fellowship provides ‘a no-strings-attached grant of one hundred thousand dollars to skip college and focus on work, research, and self-education. [Fellows] are mentored by a network of visionary thinkers, investors, scientists and entrepreneurs, who provide guidance and business connections that cannot be replicated in any classroom’ (The Thiel Foundation, 2013). In another similar initiative UnCollege, the graduation requirement is not a thesis but a real project that fellows need to complete under external sponsorship (UnCollege, 2013). In comparison to this, most typical university graduation requirements seem to be the more risk-averse option.
There is an argument to be made that quality assurance, especially in accreditation mode, perpetuates the same model of higher education. Some of the typical indicators of quality are the number of professors with terminal degrees, student to faculty ratios, student workload, etc. These indicators reflect the age-old assumption that a PhD-holder is the most valuable mentor, and the more time spent on task the better the outcome – lectures, reading and writing being the most common tasks called on to fulfill all sorts of learning outcomes. There is validity to this learning model, but it is also losing its value in face of rising costs and available non-university alternatives. The purpose of this paper is to see whether quality assurance challenges universities to reinvent themselves and respond to changing circumstances or, instead, ties them down to old ways. I will look at academic research on this issue, the European Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance and analyze some of the best practices from European Higher Education Area.
In 2009 Peter Williams, former Chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency in the UK, told the World Innovation Summit for Education that most accreditation systems are designed ‘to try to ensure guaranteed and replicable outcomes to minimize risks of unacceptable variability in quality of standards’, and thus stifle innovation in higher education (cited in Baty, 2009). The relationship between innovative practices in higher education and quality assurance was also the main theme for the annual European Quality Assurance Forum in the same year. One of the plenary speakers Bjorn Stensaker described how standardization and innovation are both a response to changes in the higher education environment. On the one hand, external political pressure and professionalization of higher education call for standardization and, thus, increasing similarity of the sector. On the other hand, the need to adapt to market needs and find a niche in order to compete successfully for students requires higher education institutions (HEIs) to become innovative in their offerings (Stensaker, 2009). At the same time, the stronger the market pressures for higher education providers to innovate and diversify, the stronger the political need to protect students from offerings that do not meet the definition or standard of higher education.
There are several studies pointing out that quality assurance is moving in the direction of stricter accountability. Report from European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA, 2008) established that most quality assurance agencies use a combination of two control-focused methods – evaluation and accreditation, with audit (considered a more flexible and enhancement-oriented approach) used only at a small minority of agencies. There are analyses at country level to the same effect. Hodson and Thomas (2003) analyzed the UK experience in quality assurance and concluded that universities are being increasingly pushed towards compliance with uniform external standards. They argue that external quality assurance was born out of the circumstances of the 1990’s when expansion of the higher education sector made it necessary to assure uniform standards, but this approach is not necessarily conducive to quality enhancement required for the new millennium.
A team of authors from the University of Antwerp looked at how an accreditation process taken too seriously inhibits creative reflection about core educational principles and processes of the administration. In Flanders, the peer review was the only method of quality assurance before 2005 when accreditation was added into the legislation. Under the added pressure of gaining or losing formal accreditation, the initial guidelines and standards for quality assurance have evolved into detailed listings of criteria. The authors observe that the preparation for the review panel turned into checking off a list of requirements and inventing ways for concealing drawbacks – ‘there was an apparent fear to have a fundamental debate about a common understanding of the programme’s basic principles’ (Knoors, 2009, p. 37).
The European Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance (ESG) (ENQA, 2005) are now widely accepted throughout Europe by universities in designing their internal quality assurance systems and by agencies in carrying out external evaluations. Although intended as a most general guidance to be adapted to national circumstances, the ESG is perhaps the best source to look at in order to understand the overall philosophy of quality assurance across EHEA.
The term ‘quality assurance’ is used in ESG to include all three methods – evaluation, accreditation and audit. There is, thus, a spectrum of control that quality assurance implies here. At the same time, one of the basic principles in ESG is that quality assurance processes, in whatever form, should not stifle creativity and innovation. Beyond this basic principle, however, there is no further emphasis on whether or not innovation should be a regular process in the university strategy and practice. In other words, ESG are general enough to allow educational innovation but they do not explicitly recommend it as an element of quality. There is also no mention of benchmarking against other, non-university educational programmes, and in general, ESG assume a rather inward-looking perspective for the higher education sector. This is, perhaps, in line with the objectives of the document, since the original intention was to bring a European dimension to quality assurance and generally unify principles and practices in quality assurance of HEIs across the Bologna signatory countries.
The original edition of ESG was intended as a work in progress, and it is currently being revised following the publication of the report on the implementation and application of the ESG. A new declaration for the Context, Scope and Purposes of the ESG was agreed upon in February 2013, and it seems that the new Guidelines are meant to respond to new challenges to higher education, rather than solely the challenge of Europeanization in quality assurance (ESG Steering Group, 2013). The document discusses ‘the demand for better skills and competencies’, ‘diversity in the student population’, and the need for ‘a fundamental shift in the provision of higher education’, ‘embracing flexible learning paths and recognizing competencies gained outside formal curricula’. In essence, there is recognition of the changed context that higher education institutions find themselves in, something that was not emphasized in the original ESG, and perhaps there will be more explicit discussion of educational innovation in the new edition of the Guidelines (expected in April 2015).
There are also examples of innovation-driven thinking in quality assurance, usually at the level of individual institutions and programs. For example, the University of Antwerp discussed above was prompted by the implementation of the formal accreditation system to improve its quality management system at the institutional level. Quality is now dealt with through the Working Group for Innovation and Quality Assurance and through faculty cells for innovation and quality assurance in education. It is interesting to note that educational innovation and quality assurance go side by side at the university. Innovation in education is also supported through the research done at Center of Excellence for Higher Education and by the university’s Fund for Educational Development.
A forerunner in assuring innovation in its programs through quality assurance is the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT). It delivers a brand of education that draws its relevance from societal and business needs, and explicitly integrates the three sides of the knowledge triangle – education, research and business-oriented innovation. The quality assurance system designed for accreditation and evaluation of EIT labeled programs is centered around three questions – whether business and education are linked in best possible ways, whether the best ways of teaching for creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship are employed, and whether optimal conditions are created for integrating students’ experiences from business into research and innovation (Adamson, 2012).
There is a deliberate emphasis on innovation in education delivery. The core concepts in this respect are active learning and fit-for-purpose assessment. The EIT label presupposes active learning in contrast to traditional modes of teaching (e.g. lectures), as well as the ability to reflect on practical experience. In other words, active learning, according to EIT, is not just traditional learning with a few practical elements, but the kind of learning that develops both practical skills and the ability to theorize about practical experience. Fit-for-purpose assessment is the type of assessment that is relevant in both content and form. The EIT quality assurance looks for assessment methods that provide evidence of creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship, as opposed to the traditional academic writing only, especially when it comes to thesis.
A common aspect in EIT vision and that of the University of Antwerp is that quality assurance and research on innovation in education are linked together. EIT is committed to research on teaching for the knowledge triangle and implementing the results in its programs, as well as disseminating these research results across EHEA.
This brief look at academic literature, European Guidelines and best practices by specific institutions shows that there are multiple aspects to the relationship between innovation in education and quality assurance. First of all, there is an agreement that quality assurance in the form of accreditation is necessary in times of massification, but runs the risk of inhibiting diversity and innovation in education if it devolves into a list of ‘check-off’ requirements. There are a few voices in the academic literature that are warning against the increasing focus on accountability and, thus, a mechanistic approach to quality assurance in EHEA.
In order for a quality assurance system to push an educational institution forward, it needs to be itself based on awareness of changes in educational landscape and societal demands, as well as on cutting-edge research in educational practice. When the relevance of university education itself is challenged, it is not enough to simply assure that a program provides, for example, the necessary number of lecture hours by qualified professors. This might keep universities doing the old things right, but not necessarily doing the right things. For these reasons, quality assurance systems at the University of Antwerp and the European Institute of Technology are linked to research on education. There is also a shift of focus in the European Standards and Guidelines on Quality Assurance from unification of standards to an acknowledgement of the profound changes in higher education.
Adamson, L. (2012), Handbook for Planning, Labeling and Follow-up Reviewing of EIT Master and Doctoral Programmes, Bucharest: EIT;
Baty, P. (2009), ‘Quality systems ‘stifle’ innovation’, Times Higher Education [online] (Last updated on 29 November 2009). Available at: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/409241.article (01.12.2013);
ENQA (2005), Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area, Brussels: ENQA;
ENQA (2008), Quality Procedures in the European Higher Education Area and Beyond – Second ENQA Survey, Brussels: ENQA;
ESG Steering Group (2013), Context, Scope, Purposes and Principles of the ESG. Available at: http://revisionesg.wordpress.com/ (01.12.2013);
Hodson, P. & Thomas, H. (2003), ‘Quality assurance in higher education: Fit for the millenium or simply year 2000 compliant?’, Higher education, vol. 45, pp.375-387;
Knoors, E. (2009), ‘External quality assurance and accreditation: Is there still room to think outside the box?’ in A. Blaettler et al. (eds.) Creativity and diversity: Challenges for quality assurance beyond 2010: A selection of papers from the 4th European Quality Assurance Forum. Brussels, Belgium: European University Association, p. 36-40;
Stensaker, B. (2009), ‘Innovation, learning and quality assurance: Mission impossible?’ in A. Blaettler et al. (eds.) Creativity and diversity: Challenges for quality assurance beyond 2010: A selection of papers from the 4th European Quality Assurance Forum. Brussels, Belgium: European University Association, p. 31-34;
The Thiel Fellowship (2013), www.thielfellowship.org (01.12.2013);
UnCollege (2013), http://www.uncollege.org/program/ (01.12.2013);
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