This year, EUA’s Institutional Evaluation Programme (IEP) marks 25 years since its foundation. Tatjana Volkova, Chair of IEP Steering Committee, and EUA expert Anna Gover reflect on the benefits that IEP brings to participating institutions and how its approach remains relevant in a crowded external quality assurance landscape.
Higher education institutions today face many challenges. They play a critical role in modern society, which is being transformed by the digital economy, internationalisation, and the decline of public investment. At the same time, institutions must navigate increased autonomy, global competition for staff and students, and ongoing sector reforms. In response, they are offering new services, while various stakeholders are paying increased attention to their performance results. In parallel, the approach to, and system for, quality assurance in higher education has evolved in recent decades. Higher education institutions are variously faced with progamme and institutional review, evaluation of research performance, quality management system audits, and rankings by different bodies. Many universities are also asking international agencies for advice on improving their positioning in the local and international higher education sectors.
It was a very different environment when EUA’s Institutional Evaluation Progamme (IEP) was launched 25 years ago. At the time there was only a handful of external quality assurance agencies, and national evaluation procedures were only just being set up. Fast-forward to present day, and there are 48 EQAR-listed agencies operating in the European Higher Education Area, with a myriad of different approaches and foci. Against this backdrop, IEP’s approach has also evolved, while maintaining a strong link to its founding philosophy and methodology, which is to offer institutional evaluations that support participating universities in the development of their strategic management and internal quality culture to enhance performance.
The distinctive features of IEP are a strong emphasis on the self-evaluation phase and support for further improvement. The focus is the higher education institution as a whole, and not the individual study programmes or administrative units. In addition, as experienced university leaders, the evaluation teams apply the concept of peer review when visiting the institution. Evaluations are tailored to each institutional profile and are geared towards improving the university’s capacity to reach its strategic goals and fulfil its mission. According to a 2018 study, this context sensitive approach is cited by evaluated institutions as one of the most useful characteristics of the programme. In particular, it allows the evaluation team to gain an integrated understanding of the university’s activities. During the evaluation process, the team focuses on the balance between decision-making processes and institutional structures, as well as the efficiency and effectiveness of strategic management with quality assurance.
Feedback from institutions that have participated in IEP indicates that the university’s self-evaluation process prior to the evaluation team visit brings high added value to the institution. This preparation supports the university’s leaders to better understand the achievements and challenges in the following internally- and externally-facing areas: decision making and governance; the study process; organising research activities and utilising research results; internationalisation; developing a quality culture; and developing resources and service to society.
The preparation of the self-assessment report helps administrators identify many new dimensions of the university that were not clarified before. Typically, the evaluation teams see that there is impetus for change, even before they provide their findings and recommendations as the result of university leaders reflecting on the questions asked and issues highlighted. In many cases, a university’s preparation for an IEP evaluation enhances transparency and openness. Importantly, there is no “pass or fail” judgement at the end of the process. This low stakes approach allows the leadership to highlight new opportunities and increase awareness about risks, thus contributing to the development of a quality culture. In this way, the IEP process has proven to be a tool to prepare universities for dealing with system reforms or preparing for national institutional accreditation.
Of course an institution’s quality assurance system is central to its potential to develop. IEP therefore investigates the degree to which the quality assurance system outcomes are used in decision-making and continuous improvement, and highlights perceived gaps in these internal mechanisms. A recent study by IEP, examining the topics most commonly appearing in its evaluation recommendations, shows that many institutions have a fragmented approach to assuring quality. For example, university administrators and staff may think in silos of specific functional areas as teaching, research, and making use of research results, lacking a holistic approach to ensure quality at the institutional level. Therefore, universities must demonstrate quality leadership and governance capacity at the institutional level, involving relevant internal and external stakeholders. Effective institutional governance and leadership is a precondition for quality assurance. The success of a quality management process depends on how organisational leaders structure and direct an organisation.
Following a recent external evaluation and in preparation for a new strategic plan, IEP is also reflecting on its own development. As a voluntary programme in an environment plagued by evaluation fatigue, the key to IEP’s success is the added-value that it brings to institutions. In line with its focus on supporting institutions to reach their own missions and goals, the progamme has sought to offer more individualised options for institutions. As such, institutions may now opt of an evaluation focused on internationalisation or research and the use of research results. More options for focused evaluations are planned for the coming years.
Furthermore, there are ongoing discussions about how external quality assurance can keep pace with changes in higher education and support institutions in meeting societal expectations. These discussions are bound to feed into the future development of IEP and the external quality assurance sector as a whole. Who knows what the landscape will look like in another 25 years.
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All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA.
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.Read more