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18 September 2020

From within the UK to across Europe, quality assurance in higher education must be flexible and diverse


Alastair Delaney
Director for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, QAA

Brexit won’t mean the end of UK involvement in European higher education policy; indeed, it makes engagement even more important. For two decades QAA has been involved in higher education partnership across the European Higher Education Area (EHEA), supporting the development and revision of the European Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance (ESG) in 2005 and 2015. It’s a role we’re committed to continuing, as the ESG continue to evolve.


The E4 Group (ENQA, EUA, EURASHE and ESU) published a statement recently on the use of the Standards and Guidelines in the changing landscape of higher education. This is important considering the real diversity in higher education provision across Europe, including that within the UK, and how we can ensure sufficient flexibility to meet local needs and circumstances.


Within the UK sector, higher education provision has been changing rapidly in recent years, including the mainstreaming of e-learning, the emergence of micro-credentials, and the renewed importance of the socio-economic role that higher education institutions play. The current COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated some of these changes, and is prompting new approaches to the delivery of higher education. Higher education delivery has adapted rapidly and responsively, and so have the means of ensuring quality.


Of course, the provision of higher education is not homogenous across the UK either. As a devolved matter, the four administrations have adopted either slightly, or significantly different paths and approaches, while the sectors have worked to retain the ‘UK brand’ internationally. There are different funding arrangements, accountability requirements and approaches to improving quality - all within an overall UK-wide higher education landscape. QAA operates across this local diversity to assess and enhance quality according to local requirements, and maintain a UK-wide Quality Code for Higher Education.


The lessons we have learnt at scale here are not dissimilar to the need for flexibility in the European Higher Education Area. There is similar diversity among the role and functions of quality assurance agencies across the EHEA. Agencies often have differing responsibilities, are at differing degrees of independence from the state and, crucially, often undertake work which is beyond the purview of the ESG. This diversity meets the local needs of the state or jurisdiction where they are working and, for the agencies concerned, are the day-to-day environment in which they operate. From a QAA perspective, for example, we work internationally to deliver quality enhancement to meet the local requirements in areas such as Asia and the Middle East. This work enhances the reputation of quality in the UK and helps support quality enhancement here. That work must be designed to fit the local requirements of these countries for it to be acceptable.


In such a diverse working environment, how relevant are the ESG as a foundation for quality in higher education? The E4 statement was prepared in response to discussions regarding the continued relevance and applicability of the ESG in this changing context. It covers issues such as the purpose, focus and interpretation of the ESG. The E4 Group underline that 'the appropriate and flexible use and interpretation of the ESG are at the core of their suitability to respond to the developing higher education landscape and support innovation and diversity in higher education and quality assurance.' So, the ESG is not to be interpreted simply as a checklist, with unthinking compliance, and can be flexed to take full account of local circumstances.


That flexibility of interpretation, as discussed by the E4 in relation to the ESG, is crucial. No student experience in higher education is uniform. No two institutions are the same, and the different national and local jurisdictions also shape and form their higher education provision. So quality assurance agencies, such as QAA, must seek to understand the local context, must be flexible to meet local requirements, and must be focused on the student experience.


That does not take away from the value of an overarching understanding of what higher education is and what a high-quality student experience should look like. It does not undermine the need for minimum standards that every institution should meet, and every student should expect. But flexibility in the application of these, and a focus on outcomes rather than blind adherence to expected processes, does encourage innovation and creativity, something which has been very much required of institutions over the recent period. The current adaptability in approach has also reinforced the necessity of good internal quality assurance. It is not feasible to simply wait until the data tells us about the longer-term impact of our decisions now, requiring a more immediate focus on quality assurance to, as best as possible, understand the likely impacts of urgent decisions and to improve or at least maintain the student experience.


To remain relevant, the ESG cannot be seen or used to constrain agencies responding to local circumstances, or as a break on creativity and innovation. It should encourage it to ensure that higher education, and the agencies that support it, adapt to changing circumstances, are fit for the future as well as the present, and support the highest quality learning and teaching experience that our students deserve.