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19 November 2020

QAA’s latest engagement with European higher education


Alastair Delaney
Director for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, with additional responsibility for engagement with Europe


The UK might have left the European Union but, certainly in higher education terms, we remain very much part of Europe. QAA and the UK higher education sector overall, maintains close partnerships on the European stage, through partnerships such as the European Higher Education Area (EHEA), the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA), and the European Quality Assurance Register (EQAR), of which the UK Government is a member. This is to ensure that QAA Members and the sector overall can continue to benefit as much as possible from engagement with the rest of Europe, such as with student and staff mobility, portability of qualifications, research partnerships and other European programmes. We also want to ensure that the UK can still have an influence over the policy-making processes in European higher education by continuing to have a seat at the table where possible.


A central element of the sector’s ongoing relationship with Europe will be through the EHEA, also known as the Bologna Process. The EHEA is an international collaboration of higher education involving 48 countries (comprised of EU and non-EU member states), that has been working on a common set of structural reforms and shared tools for higher education over the past 20 years. These 48 countries have agreed to adopt reforms on higher education on the basis of common key values such as freedom of expression, autonomy for institutions, independent student unions, academic freedom, free movement of students and staff. The EHEA has also led to much greater consistency of degrees across the continent, allowing for greater student mobility and cross-continental employment opportunities.


Every two years, the EHEA holds a Ministerial Conference or summit, where government ministers with responsibility for higher education from each EHEA member nation come together to discuss their ongoing cooperation and confirm the next steps via an agreed written communiqué. On Thursday 19 November, the Ministerial Conference will be held online, where the new communiqué for the future will be agreed. QAA will attend this Conference, as it has done for previous EHEA conferences, joining both the UK Government and Scottish Government delegations (due to the distinctive nature of the Scottish higher education system, it has separate membership of the EHEA).


The draft communiqué will mark 21 years since the initial signing of the Bologna Declaration and will reaffirm the commitment to developing a more inclusive, innovative, interconnected and resilient EHEA. The draft communiqué has a significant focus on how higher education can improve and support society, and it talks about higher education’s role in addressing the multiple threats to global peace, democratic values, freedom of information, health and wellbeing; not least those created or exacerbated by the pandemic. It has a commitment to stepping up investment in education to ensure that higher education institutions have the funding to develop solutions to the current crisis and the subsequent recovery.


Importantly, the communiqué will also note that quality education will continue to be the hallmark of the EHEA, with a commitment to its enhancement by using fully the new opportunities provided by digitalisation. This aligns with work QAA has done since the COVID-19 pandemic began - publishing substantial pieces of guidance and supporting documentation for the sector as it moved to greater levels of online teaching and assessment. QAA will also continue its engagement with Europe-wide efforts for quality assurance and enhancement of higher education through its membership of ENQA, of which the CEO of QAA is a board member.


Many of the communiqué’s priorities align with elements that are receiving more focus in the UK. For example, it talks about focusing on flexibility of learning pathways with a greater emphasis on institutions offering smaller units of learning, including those leading to micro-credentials, which could be recognised across the EHEA using its existing tools. It also reaffirms the target that at least 20% of those graduating in the EHEA should experience a study or training period abroad - something that will be of importance to the UK as it negotiates its future relationship with the EU. Further to this, the communiqué commits to ensuring that external quality arrangements cover transnational higher education in the EHEA with equal standards to domestic provision, which is pertinent to QAA as it consults on a new quality evaluation method for UK transnational education. QAA has had the opportunity to discuss the communiqué with government ministers where we have been able to recognise the priorities that are shared with the UK and the rest of Europe when it comes to higher education.


Overall, the EHEA Ministerial Conference in November demonstrates why the EHEA and its common principles and priorities remain relevant to QAA and the UK higher education sector as a whole. Previous developments in the EHEA have led to greater levels of study abroad opportunities, with greater levels of recognition of degrees and efforts to improve education quality for all students across the continent. We look forward to continuing to support the UK higher education sector as it continues its positive engagement with the rest of Europe.