The ‘European Quality Assurance Register’ for higher education: from networks to hierarchy?

Quality assurance has been an important global dialogue, with quality assurance agencies embedded in the fabric of the global higher education landscape. These agencies are mostly made up of a network of nationally-located institutions, for example the Nordic Quality Assurance Network in Higher Education, or the US-based Council for Higher Education Accrediation.

Since the early 1990s, we have seen the development of regional and global networks of agencies, for instance the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education, and the International Network for Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education which in 2007 boasted full membership from 136 organizations from 74 countries. Such networks both drive and produce processes of globalization and regionalization.

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The emergence of ‘registers’–of the kind announced today with the launch of the European Quality Assurance Register (EQAR) by the E4 Group(ESU, The European University Association – EUA, The European Association of Institutions in Higher Education – EURASHE, The European Network of Quality Assurance Agencies – ENQA) – signals a rather different kind of ‘globalising’ development in the sector. In short we might see it as a move from a network of agencies to a register that acts to regulate the sector. It also signals a further development in the creation of a European higher education industry.

So, what will the EQAR to do? According to EQAR, its role is to

…provide clear and reliable information on the quality assurance agencies (QAAs) operating in Europe: this is a list of agencies that substantially comply with the European Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance (ESG) as adopted by the European ministers of higher education in Bergen 2005.

The Register is expected to:

  • promote student mobility by providing a basis for the increase of trust among higher education institutions;
  • reduce opportunities for “accreditation mills” to gain credibility;
  • provide a basis for governments to authorize higher educations institutions to choose any agency from the Register, if that is compatible with national arrangements;
  • provide a means for higher education institutions to choose between different agencies, if that is compatible with national arrangements; and
  • serve as an instrument to improve the quality of education.

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All Quality Assurance Agencies that comply with the European Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance will feature on the register, with compliance secured through an external review process.

There will also be a Register Committee – an independent body comprising of 11 quality assurance experts, nominated by European stakeholder organisations. This committee will decide on the inclusion of the quality assurance agencies. The EQAR association, that operates the Register, will be managed by an Executive Board, composed of E4 representatives, and a Secretariat.

The ‘register’ not only formalises and institutionalises a new layer of quality assurance, but it generates a regulatory hierarchy over and above other public and private regulatory agencies. It also is intended to ensure the development of a European higher education industry with the stamp of regulatory approval to provide important information in the global marketplace.

Susan Robertson

One thought on “The ‘European Quality Assurance Register’ for higher education: from networks to hierarchy?

  1. While this information about the EQAR is completely accurate, I fail to see why the establishment of a Register implies moving away from networks and towards hierarchy. The purpose of the Register is simply to offer a reliable source of information on QA agencies that comply with the European Standards and Guidelines.

    An analogy to this would be the Soil Assocation or similar bodies that are responsible for deciding which food is organic. Does this imply a hierarchy of food that consumers buy in the supermarket? No. The point is simply to provide reliable information.

    Likewise for any higher education institution that is considering going through a quality assurance or accreditation procedure, and may look beyond a national agency for this process (many institutions already look to non national agencies, and there is no reason to expect a slowdown in international trends in QA) there will now be a reliable source of information on agencies that work in respect of the European Standards and Guidelines.

    Networks of agencies will still continue to operate and develop, as they have their own important goals and objectives particularly in relation to strengthening good practice in Quality Assurance.

    EQAR represents a significant step forward in the Bologna process, and is achieved with a participative model involving higher education institutions, quality assurance agencies, students and governments. Not for the first time, when we should be celebrating a milestone in the creation of the European higher education area, it seems some are in danger of being distracted by imaginary fears …

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