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Numerous cases of positive change in higher education systems can be attributed to EUA’s Institutional Evaluation Programme (IEP). As IEP celebrates its 25th anniversary, Andrée Sursock looks back at how coordinated evaluations have supported system level developments in the European Higher Education Area.

True to its mission, EUA’s Institutional Evaluation Programme (IEP) seeks to strengthen the universities in Europe and the national systems in which they are located. The coordinated evaluations are a powerful tool to reach that goal.

Coordinated evaluations are conducted simultaneously in a single country, often at the request of national authorities. They result in individual reports on each of the institutions involved in the exercise and a general, sectoral report. The latter is impactful at the national level since it identifies shared issues and challenges and provides system-level recommendations that address the conditions for enabling universities to be more innovative and adaptable. The impact of the sectoral report is increased by a concluding workshop with universities and other interested parties to discuss the recommendations and how to take them forward.

IEP expert teams are asked not to focus on system-level recommendations in the individual evaluations reports. Such broad policy recommendations are left for the sectoral report.

Typical recommendations about governance broach issues of funding, institutional autonomy, the external quality assurance system, and whether the conditions are optimal to allow institutions to manage their own activities, albeit with appropriate accountability measures to the public. On learning and teaching, the sectoral reports would comment on such aspects as whether the national regulations about staff workloads impede the introduction of active learning, and if there is focus on staff development. The chapters on research, service to society and internationalisation provide such recommendations as ensuring that doctoral education is in line with European trends, national support for the institutional internationalisation strategies and principles for engaging with external stakeholders and serving society.

The concluding chapter usually offers a general assessment about the higher education landscape: Is it too fragmented? Does the legal framework promote institutional diversity or isomorphism? Does it provide financial and legal stability that allow institutions to manage their activities in a strategic, long-term fashion? Does the system promote student access and success and support student leadership and its involvement in the governance of institutions? Is there a culture of staff development and career management?

In its 25 years of existence, EUA’s IEP has conducted a number of these coordinated evaluations. The first started in an accidental way. In 2001, IEP was asked to evaluate medical education and training in Portugal. Although IEP did not evaluate smaller institutional sub-units such as faculties, the invitation was accepted as a pilot.

After this first successful experience, many other coordinated evaluations were conducted. Some included all the universities in a country or region. This was the case in Bosnia Herzegovina, Catalonia, Ireland, Serbia and Slovakia. The Slovakian project also involved the evaluation of the national research capacity, including research funding mechanisms and levels, infrastructure, young researchers’ careers, etc. Other projects covered a sample of institutions: such as in North Macedonia, Portugal and Romania. In Montenegro, IEP conducted an initial evaluation of the whole higher education system in 2014 and a follow-up evaluation exercise a few years later. This was particularly interesting in that it demonstrated IEP’s impact at the system level and not just at the institutional level. A rather unique case is that of Turkey where IEP had completed 17 evaluations by 2007. Although those evaluations had taken place over a period of nine years, the Turkish Association of Industrialists and Businessmen requested a sectoral report based on them. The central aim of that transversal report was to support the development of Turkish universities within a European context.

The European teams that IEP sends out bring with them knowledge of the European Higher Education Area in all its diversity and commonalities. This European benchmarking constitutes an important change factor and encourages institutions and government to look beyond their national borders at good examples of policies and frameworks that have assured the success of other higher education systems in Europe. For instance, the Serbian evaluations (2001-02) took place after a period in which the Balkan region had been cut off from wider European developments. The IEP evaluations fed into the development of a new higher education law and the creation of new national bodies. A few years later, the IEP coordinated evaluation provided the momentum for reforms linked to the Bologna Process in Bosnia Herzegovina. 

There are numerous examples of concrete changes at the system level that can be attributed to IEP coordinated evaluations. The recommendations contained in the sectoral report on Portuguese medical faculties and their relationship to hospitals triggered a profound change process in Portuguese medical and clinical education. The first Montenegrin report led to significant changes in the higher education law, which incorporated many of the recommendations contained in the IEP sectoral report. The Irish evaluations resulted in strengthening the internal approach to quality assurance and quality improvement. It also enhanced student participation in quality processes and placed greater focus on the links between quality assurance and strategic management and planning.  

IEP itself has also benefited from the coordinated evaluations. They created a momentum for reflecting on the IEP methodology and led to a range of initiatives seeking to professionalise and ensure, in an on-going manner, the quality of the programme.


IEP is an EQAR-registered quality assurance agency offering enhancement-led peer evaluations of higher education institutions. Its mission is to support institutions in developing their strategic leadership and capacity to manage change.


Andrée Sursock
European University Association

Andrée Sursock is Senior Adviser at the European University Association where she is involved in a range of activities on the topics of governance, learning and teaching and quality assurance. She is author of the EUA essay “Higher Education and its Communities: A Transatlantic view on openness, democracy and engagement”, which presents highlights from the 2018 Transatlantic Dialogue.

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