External quality assurance reports are publicly available, demonstrating transparency and building trust and confidence in the quality of higher education. As EQAR’s Colin Tück explains, a new database provides an opportunity for anyone to access to objective information on institutions and their study programmes.
External quality assurance plays an important role to support higher education institutions in enhancing the quality of their provision and to create trust in the quality of higher education. Publishing the reports made by quality assurance agencies is already a “tradition” in Europe. It has been a principle of the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (ESG) ever since 2005 and was further clarified in the ESG 2015.
Such public reports make the quality assurance process transparent. They provide objective information on institutions and their study programmes, and thus enhance confidence in European higher education. However, the reports need not only be published, but also easily accessible and understandable to serve their purpose. The Europe-wide Database of External Quality Assurance Results (DEQAR) provides a new one-stop shop that aims to close the accessibility gap. DEQAR is produced and managed by the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education (EQAR), which is the European Higher Education Area’s official register of quality assurance agencies operating in line with the ESG.
As of June 2019, the database gives access to 9 754 quality assurance reports, covering 1 624 institutions in 56 countries. Next to basic information, such as the status and formal decision resulting from an accreditation, evaluation or audit, DEQAR allows users to download the full report.
One key use of quality assurance reports is in the recognition of qualifications or periods of study. Recognition officers, in national information centres (ENIC-NARICs) and higher education institutions, need a quick and clear way to find out if an institution underwent external quality assurance in line with the ESG. Especially if quality assurance intends to catalyse the automatic recognition of qualifications, more organisations and individuals will need a way to easily establish this themselves, without a lengthy search or process.
There are plenty of other situations in which external quality assurance results are consulted. These include prospective students who want to know whether a university is quality assured; international officers who need to be informed when looking at potential cooperation partners; those who manage study grants, loans or scholarships who want to be assured of the quality of institutions where recipients study; researchers who use quality assurance reports for analyses and comparisons; and university leaders and managers who may use reports on other higher education institutions for benchmarking.
Those who are well-informed may not have difficulties in finding their way through the jungle of websites and reports as they might know how to find the relevant quality assurance agency, which websites to search (EQAR currently registers 46 agencies that have demonstrated their compliance with the ESG), and how to interpret what they find. But for the less informed, or those who only occasionally look for an external quality assurance report, information is much harder to find, especially if searched in a country they are not familiar with.
At EQAR, we sometimes receive requests from students or graduates who wish to confirm that their higher education institution or study programme is accredited, evaluated or audited in line with the ESG. Even for us as experts in the field, without a common database it took time and effort to answer such queries.
Accessibility is, however, not only about practicalities. Having information available in a single place managed by EQAR allows other stakeholders to rely on it without having to check separately whether and when an agency was registered.
Most importantly, the results and reports are presented in DEQAR using a harmonised metadata profile and together with comparable descriptions of the national external quality assurance system and requirements. This allows users to understand what a report means in context.
Based on our analytics since DEQAR was launched in May 2018, compared to approximately 8 700 views of pages listing the external quality assurance reports for a specific institution, only approximately 3 000 actual reports where downloaded and (potentially) read.
These figures do not come as a surprise. First and foremost, most reports are published in the national language, especially at the programme level. Only 6% of the programme accreditation/evaluation reports in DEQAR are in English, compared to 30% of the institutional reports. This excludes cross-border quality assurance. Not surprisingly, more than 95% of reports are in English where institutions have worked with a registered agency from abroad. Furthermore, reports may at times be detailed and technical, and do not always contain an easily readable summary.
For some purposes, for example automatic recognition, the presence of an evaluation or accreditation alone might be sufficient. But for a wider audience to actually read reports, more English reports, and especially summaries, would need to become available.
Either way, we should not underestimate that the fact that the full report is publicly available and can be read by anyone. It demonstrates transparency, builds additional trust and confidence in the quality of higher education, and helps students and graduates demonstrate that their qualification was thoroughly quality assured.
“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.
Reports produced by quality assurance agencies can be used in many ways, including in policy-making. As EUA’s Tia Loukkola explains, there is much room for bettering the accessibility and use of information generated by external quality assurance processes across Europe.Read more