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The role of quality assurance in promoting social dimension of higher education

What would be the most effective way forward for universities to promote social dimension in their respective contexts? EUA expert Tia Loukkola discusses the role that quality assurance can play and its limitations.

Promoting the social dimension in higher education is one of the key principles of the Bologna Process. It is based on the ideal that the student populations and higher education graduates should reflect the diversity and demographics in our societies. Depending on the context, the focus of different policy measures may be on ensuring equity, diversity or inclusion in higher education.

Despite this commitment in the Bologna Process, regular Bologna Implementation Reports have indicated limited progress. Therefore, over the past two years, an advisory group, of which EUA is a member, has been developing the “Principles and Guidelines to Strengthen the Social Dimension of Higher Education in the EHEA”. This document is expected to be adopted by Europe’s higher education ministers at the next Bologna Process Ministerial Conference scheduled to take place on 18-20 November.

Developing these principles has put new wind in the sails of the debate on role of quality assurance in promoting the social dimension of higher education. The debate is not a new one: calls have been made over the years for quality assurance to address the social dimension.

In the Bologna advisory group’s draft document, the role of quality assurance is defined as follows: “Whenever possible, external quality assurance systems should address how the social dimension, diversity, accessibility, equity and inclusion are reflected within the institutional missions of higher education institutions, whilst respecting the principle of autonomy of higher education institutions.” This leaves room for many ways forward and is thereby in line with the diversity of approaches to external quality assurance. But importantly, it also respects the principle of there being different views to what constitutes quality.

EUA has underlined the importance of context-sensitivity when defining quality. This means that each higher education institution would need to reflect on its own definition of quality. The role of quality assurance processes would then be to ensure that the institution delivers this quality and to further enhance it. Following this logic, if diversity, inclusion and equity are part of an institutional vision of high quality, then internal quality assurance processes should focus on promoting them.

At the end of 2019, EUA published a survey report, which examined institutional strategies and practices promoting diversity, equity and inclusion in higher education institutions. It shows that promoting these agendas was a strategic choice for the institutions responding to the survey and many had developed explicit strategies and defined responsibilities accordingly. The report lists external drivers that can be effective in promoting different aspects of a diversity and inclusiveness agenda, but does not mention quality assurance. Is this a cause for concern?

Not necessarily, because the report notes that most strategies “also included a component of monitoring and evaluation, ranging from the simple mention of the need for an adequate accountability process to explicit key performance indicators.” Importantly, the report continues noting that the strategies in general “differ widely, dependent on the overall societal discourse, a country’s welfare system and legislative framework, as well as the institutional culture and governance structures”. Indeed, it is important to keep in mind the need for local adaptation and that labelling different procedures under quality assurance is not the crucial. Instead, what is essential is that each institution has measures in place to ensure that it delivers its commitments.

At higher education system level, it is relevant to keep in mind lessons learnt from a report looking into how the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (ESG) are implemented. The report found that the division of roles at the system level between different actors varies and so does the purpose of external quality assurance processes. It reminds readers that external quality assurance is only one of many measures used to steer a system. It also points out the need to develop these measures in a holistic manner ensuring complementarity and synergies between them.

The last principle cited in the document by the Bologna advisory group encourages public authorities to engage in a policy dialogue with higher education institutions and other relevant stakeholders to discuss what would be the most effective way forward in promoting the social dimension in their respective contexts. Part of this dialogue would need to focus on what, if any, role is ultimately assigned to external quality assurance.

“Expert Voices” is an online platform featuring original commentary and analysis on the higher education and research sector in Europe. It offers EUA experts, members and partners the opportunity to share their expertise and perspectives in an interactive and flexible exchange on key topics in the field.

All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA.

Tia Loukkola

Tia Loukkola is the Director of the EUA Institutional Development unit. She is in charge of a variety of EUA’s activities dealing with improving and monitoring the quality of universities and their educational mission, as well as specific topics including quality assurance, recognition, rankings and learning and teaching.

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