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External quality assurance across the European Higher Education Area is highly diverse. EQAR’s Melinda Szabo maps the situation through the rich datasets of the Database of External Quality Assurance Results and the European Tertiary Education Register.

Quality assurance in higher education is not easily pinned down. A glance into the external quality assurance of EUA member universities reveals a rather intricate puzzle of reviews, evaluations, assessments, audits, certifications and accreditations that are carried out regularly, occasionally, at fixed or conditional intervals of time. Due to the lack of a universal terminology, we also see that two procedures with the same name in two different places might vary in their design and focus. For example, “institutional audits” in Austria are not the same as “institutional audits” in Croatia, Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway or the United Kingdom. Similarly, the “institutional evaluations” in Romania might differ compared to those in Hungary, Bulgaria and Slovenia.

In this potpourri of external quality assurance activities, the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (ESG) have provided a common understanding that captures different forms of external quality assurance activities under one umbrella. Notably, using both the Database of External Quality Assurance Results (DEQAR) and the European Tertiary Education Register (ETER) datasets allows for a better analysis of the external quality assurance frameworks and their alignment with the ESG.

Differences and similarities in external quality assurance
The diverse nature of external quality assurance in European higher education systems is captured by the European Quality Assurance Register (EQAR), which has been collecting data on external quality assurance frameworks within the 49 European Higher Education Area (EHEA) countries since 2017 (within its Knowledge Base). EQAR also monitors the activity of quality assurance agencies working in compliance with the ESG through DEQAR.

EQAR’s Knowledge Base reveals that the most common form of external quality assurance covers both the institutional and the programme level (79%). Only a handful of countries require external quality assurance only at the programme level (the French Community of Belgium, Poland and Ukraine) or only at the institutional level (Finland, Iceland, Turkey and the United Kingdom). To limit the accreditation burden for higher education systems that require regular external quality assurance of both the institutional and programme levels, and to make the reviews more manageable for quality assurance agencies to carry out, some countries decided to adopt a clustered review of study programmes instead of an individual programme-level accreditation (Croatia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, France, Estonia and Hungary). Other higher education systems have opted for either a lighter form of accreditation at the programme level (Portugal, Netherlands) or for programme-level accreditation in only some cases. Examples of such approach are ex-ante accreditations (the Flemish Community of Belgium, Croatia, Lichtenstein and Slovenia), accreditations for some fields of study (Armenia, Switzerland) or when the higher education institutions do not have self-accrediting status (Austria, Denmark, Ireland, Malta, Norway and Luxembourg).

DEQAR data further reveals that the most common cycle of external quality assurance accreditation is five or six years. This varies greatly depending on the procedure or the consequences of a previous decision (for example, conditional accreditation vs. full accreditation). Lengthier accreditation cycles are found in Georgia, for example (accreditation of educational programmes every seven years), Lithuania (institutional review every seven to eight years), Estonia (institutional accreditation every seven years). Shorter cycles, instead, are a feature of accreditation with conditions or restrictions, such as in Denmark, Romania, Georgia, Hungary and Portugal. Programme accreditation may be awarded with conditions for one to three years.

Aligning external quality assurance systems with the ESG

The 60 000 quality assurance reports (and decisions) in DEQAR (from 42 of the 50 registered agencies) provide a comprehensive system-level view of the external quality assurance activities in 85% of the EHEA member countries. The combined DEQAR and ETER datasets provide an extensive picture on the coverage of reviewed higher education institutions and their student population. While the DEQAR external quality assurance coverage is not complete for all higher institution systems, the existing data shows that at least 50% of higher education institutions in 23 countries have been reviewed at the programme or institutional level by an EQAR-registered agency. Of the 2 948 higher education institutions found in ETER, 46.4% have been reviewed at the programme or institutional level against the ESG. In both datasets, a nearly identical percentage of student population coverage of the reviewed higher education institutions is observed: 46.6%.

The combined datasets of DEQAR and ETER provide some interesting findings considering the coverage of higher education systems that have been reviewed against the ESG. A few larger higher education institutions within a country may cover a significant share of the student population and thus largely ensure “ESG coverage” with only a few higher education institutions. For example, six of the 14 reviewed higher education institutions in North Macedonia cover 96% of the country’s student population; seven of the 195 higher education institutions reviewed in Turkey cover 47% of the total student population; two of the 46 higher education institutions reviewed in Serbia cover 46% of the student population. The two combined datasets also show that more higher education institutions go through institutional-level external quality assurance compared to programme-level.

Therefore, the coverage of countries with higher education institutions that have been reviewed against the ESG, can be best illustrated by considering both the size and the number of reviewed higher education institutions within one country.

In sum, one of the innovative aspects of the combined datasets is that it offers a new and comprehensive picture of EHEA member countries meeting their key commitment of aligning their quality assurance systems with the ESG. The analysis also shows that various approaches to external quality assurance allow for creativity and diversity in the use of ESG across the EHEA.


Melinda Szabo
European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education (EQAR)

Melinda Szabo is a Senior Policy Analyst at the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education (EQAR). She previously worked in the Bologna Follow-Up Group Secretariat and as a quality assurance expert at the Babes Bolyai University (UBB) in Romania. Melinda has a Master’s in Educational Management from UBB and participated in the ERASMUS+ programme at the Université Libre de Bruxelles.

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