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How can universities frame their internal quality assurance and shake up the image of the bureaucratic burden? EUA’s Tia Loukkola gives us three approaches and tells us why the most effective processes may not even be labelled as quality assurance.

Internal quality assurance processes have become an intrinsic part of any modern university management. Quite often universities put them in place because they are required by external quality assurance agencies. Yet, an increasing number of universities are going beyond those requirements and designing quality assurance systems that are based on their own needs and serve to support the university community and management. At the same time, the perception of quality assurance as an additional bureaucratic burden persists.

Prompted by questions about the expectation for internal quality assurance systems to ensure that education provision is centred on student learning (ESG standard 1.3), an EUA study published in early September makes three interesting proposals. These proposals can be used to guide internal quality assurance systems, also in a more general manner, and are therefore worth discussing even outside the context of student-centred learning.

First, the report recalls that internal quality assurance is best understood as a compilation of policies and processes related to defining, assuring and enhancing the quality of an institution’s activities. In other words, it takes a Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) cycle as a starting point for quality assurance rather than limiting it to cover only monitoring and evaluation, as done by some literature.

Second, building on a SUHF study on quality in higher education administration by Jussi Kivistö and Elias Pekkola, the report distinguishes three types of quality assurance processes: primary, secondary and latent.

Primary quality assurance practices and processes are those explicitly designed for quality assurance of a certain aspect of an activity. Secondary quality assurance processes are typically designed to assure the quality of one university activity, but while doing that also serve as quality assurance mechanisms for another activity or other activities. Finally, latent quality assurance are actions, practices and policies that can serve as quality assurance procedures but are not explicitly named as such. Staff recruitment and promotion policies or strategic plans and mission statements are some examples of secondary or latent quality assurance depending on the context.

Third, the report emphasises the importance of cooperation between and participation of different actors across a university community in quality assurance. This is, in fact, needed, if the first two approaches are taken seriously: the remit of quality assurance professionals does not typically cover all aspects imaginable of the PDCA cycle or secondary quality assurance processes and rarely covers latent approaches. Therefore, defining clear roles for all members of the university community in contributing to assuring the quality would be needed.

This brings us back to the concept of quality culture and the cultural component of it, which this kind of understanding of quality assurance has a major potential to foster. It would also support the recommendations made by EUA’s often-cited Quality Culture project, which underlined the importance of cultural commitment and participation of all university actors combined with an example set by the institutional leadership supported by quality assurance policies and processes.

In this respect, an important observation was made during the focus group meeting EUA organised in June: to motivate people to share responsibility for the university’s quality, they need to feel that their contribution is valued and that they have the competence to carry out their role. Hence, elements such as recognition, incentives and capacity-building should be considered as an intrinsic part of any well-functioning internal quality assurance system.

Perhaps universities could use these three approaches to frame their internal quality assurance and shake up the image of the bureaucratic burden by recognising the role secondary and latent quality assurance? For this to work, however, it would also require quality assurance agencies to acknowledge the diversity of approaches to quality assurance and to recognise that some of the most effective processes may not be specifically labelled as quality assurance.


Tia Loukkola
European University Association

Tia Loukkola was formerly Director of Institutional Development and Deputy Secretary General at the European University Association. She was 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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