Changes and Challenges for the European Higher Education Landscape Have Implications for Quality Assurance

There is no common definition for quality assurance (Williams 2011), or the closely related concepts of quality enhancement, quality culture, evaluation, accreditation, accountability, transparency (ENQA 2014) and transparency tools (Hazelkorn et al. 2014)—and perhaps the lack of definition is a strength as this supports adaptability rather than conformity. Diversity in approach and understanding is not surprising, as there are over four thousand higher education institutions in the 48 countries that are part of the European Higher Education Area[1] All are operating within legal and administrative frameworks of their national or regional higher education systems and they vary in size and mission. The implementation of the Bologna Process was designed to create a competitive and flexible European Higher Education Area through e.g. introducing three cycle systems, curriculum development, learning outcomes linked to qualification frameworks, ECTS for transfer and accumulation and the diploma supplement, all to increase transparency and flexibility. These very ambitious goals may not have been achieved in all 48 countries, but they have supported and highlighted the importance of higher education for the future of Europe in all countries. The Bologna Process has created a common European language or terminology—albeit with national or institutional interpretations (Trends 2010). A considerable diversity remains in European higher education, “between systems, which retain their own characteristics, between institutions, which vary in size, mission and prole and even, within institutions.” (Reichert 2009). Challenges remain, as the economic crisis, globalisation, demographic changes and technological developments have an impact on the national higher education systems. The European language is the ESG among the growing number of quality assurance professionals, but the articles in this chapter indicate that not all stakeholders are fluent in it. The proposal for the revised ESG can be seen as addressing the growing diversity by creating, on the one hand, a joint understanding and, on the other hand, supporting a diversity of approach to quality assurance in European higher education.

It is difficult to consider the quality and the quality assurance of European higher education without reflecting on not only the changing global reality for higher education systems, but also the complexity of its three missions: education, research and service to society. The repeatedly quoted challenges of massification, technological changes/digital learning environments, globalisation, financial crisis, changing demography, high youth unemployment rates and whole employment sectors that are under deconstruction present a complex set of challenges for all European HEIs. For quality assurance to support the continuous development of higher education institutions, their educational offer and the higher education systems in an ever changing global higher education landscape, it seems essential that it is built on trust, flexibility, and adaptability, and that the ESG form the common “language”.

New approaches to learning and teaching have almost exploded in this decade,

e.g. flipped classrooms, blended learning, MOOC, and OER (European Commission JRC Report 2014)—practices that are seen by some as opening up higher education. Other developments are in the area of transnational education, where two policy areas of quality assurance and internationalisation intersect. The increased focus on learning and teaching and student-centred learning raise a key question on the potential requirement to develop specific quality assurance for specific higher education offers such as open and distance learning, provision of international or transnational education (joint programmes and degrees), continuing education including LLL provision, bridging courses, etc. Do new forms of learning and teaching delivery to a diversified student population (full-time, part-time, national/international or non-traditional students) in the mode of traditional campus education, distance or e-learning, MOOCs, SPOCs or in a flipped classroom together with many new transnational/joint/cross-border initiatives pose challenges for quality assurance? In recent years, a great number of European projects and initiatives have looked at developing specific quality assurance activities (e.g. E-xcellence, EFQUEL, EQUAL, EQUIPE, SEQUENT, and the ARDE project on quality in Doctoral Education) for specific types of provision of higher education. It raises the issue if a diversified European higher education landscape also demands diverse and targeted quality assurance processes, thus making it very complex to develop a common understanding of quality assurance, and how HEIs can manage a great number of different practices. Are modes of teaching or types of students more important? Are the challenges diversification pose for the qualitative development of higher education not reflected sufficiently in the revision of the ESG? Would it not be better to focus on principles of quality assurance rather than on the mode of delivery or the specificities of different student populations or institutions?

The Bologna Process was initially a collection of separate developments initiated in earlier decades that together have been developed over time to support the qualitative development of learning and teaching and student-centred learning by creating a framework as mentioned above. The framework has been developed to promote transparency, accountability, and the quality of European higher education, but discussions at the Future of Higher Education Conference, 2014 show that this vision is not a reality, yet. The understanding of this long-term vision may easily be lost with the arrival of new generations of ministers, students, academics, and policy makers, and a much more utilitarian approach to the development of higher education emerges, as other challenges seem to overshadow the European vision. European higher education is in the middle of a paradigm shift (EUA 2014), and looking back at fifteen years of higher education reforms, it is clear that much has been done at European, national and institutional level to address and support Bologna inspired changes not least in quality assurance. The name Bologna Process has perhaps lost part of its meaning for the vast majority of students in European higher education who now study within Bologna structures. The collective memory is often short and it would therefore be important to reinforce the visionary aspect

for each new generation.

Many European funded higher education projects, and in particular the different rounds of EUA's quality assurance projects have concluded that leadership is an essential success factor for the development and implementation of European strategies and policies. Successful implementation of policies and activities like quality assurance interlinks strategic development[2] and engaged leadership, and is another potential explanation for the perceived success of the European quality assurance development. Renewed visions and engagement are needed as research indicate that the original visions for quality assurance is not yet a reality everywhere, despite the well-documented progress.

  • [1] The European Union's High-Level Group on the Modernisation of Higher Education (2014)
  • [2] EUA Examining Quality Culture (2009–2012)
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