Ensuring high quality universities high up Bergen Summit agenda

A European Register for Quality Assurance Agencies is one proposal set to be agreed by education ministers in Bergen on 19-20 May. The aim is to achieve cross-border recognition of qualifications and skills across the EU.

European education ministers meeting at the upcoming Bergen Summit on 19-20 May are expected to adopt European standards for universities and national quality assurance agencies. They are set to agree on the principle of a European Register for Quality Assurance Agencies and the possibility of national labels applying European standards. Overseeing this would be a committee made up of national quality assurance agencies, universities, students, employers and public authorities.

The move follows a report by the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA) on standards and guidelines plus a peer review system for national quality assurance agencies. The report has been backed by the Bologna follow-up group.

The standards will provide the minimum level of compatibility in the form of common references which are needed in order to achieve the cross-recognition of qualifications and skills expected by EU citizens and the European labour market.

Also set to be adopted is a European Qualifications Framework focussing on learning outcomes. This is designed to provide commonly understood reference levels on how to describe learning, from basic skills up to the doctorate, with an ECTS-like (European Credit Transfer System) credit range attached to each level. The idea is for students, institutions, parents and employers in the wider Europe to be talking in terms of learning outcomes – what a graduate can actually do, at the end of his or her degree – and skills. The underlying aim is to facilitate mobility and recognition across a wide variety of learning systems, as well as make European degrees more comprehensible for employers.

During the summit, working groups on doctoral studies and the synergy between higher education and research, lifelong learning, quality assurance and recognition in a global perspective and institutional autonomy and governance are planned.

A stocktaking report assessing progress in the Bologna Process will be presented on 19 May followed by speeches by the following consultative members – the European Universities Association, the National Unions of Students in Europe (ESIB), the European Association of Institutions in Higher Education (EURASHE) and the Council of Europe.

Referring to the European Register for Quality Assurance Agencies at a technical briefing on 17 May, DG Education and Culture’s deputy head of unit for school education and higher education, Peter van der Hijden, said:

“The key point is that universities will then be going public on their quality with reports that would normally be submitted by the national quality assurance agencies every five years. In theory around 4,000 institutions across Europe would be eligible for evaluation and possibly a label.”

Typically, national quality assurance agencies inspect universities and other higher education institutes every five years. If institutes were to fail to satisfy the agency, they would then be expected to be asked to carry out the necessary improvements before submitting a new report.

An area of disagreement among member states is whether reports are sufficient in themselves rather than adding the awarding of labels as a form of accreditation.

Those against labels argue that the pressure to do what they are meant to do will lead to institutions producing reports that appear to meet the stipulated criteria on the surface but do not do so in terms of their substance. 

Another problem to be wary of is the potential for too much bureaucracy. Van der Hijden: “The danger of professors having to do too much quality assurance paperwork to the detriment of their actual teaching is one that must be closely monitored.”

A report by the Eurydice information network in education in Europe, requested by the Commission, was published on 18 May. Among other things, the report notes that:

  • Quality assurance is co-ordinated by an independent national agency in the great majority of countries
  • National bodies performing evaluation and/or accreditation do not always have independent status but come directly under the top-level public authorities
  • Students are rarely represented in the governance of national bodies for co-ordination of quality assurance
  • Students and foreign experts participate in the process of external evaluation in half the countries
  • Internal evaluation is compulsory almost everywhere and the opinion of students is sought in one way or another

The European University Association (EUA) published a university perspective to the Bologna Process in late April. Known as 'Trends IV - European Universities Implementing Bologna', it is a qualitative analysis of the results of visits to 62 institutions and, as such, does not claim to provide statistical certainty. 'Trends' reports are a firmly established part of the Bologna Process, having been submitted to each of the ministerial meetings since 1999. This particular one is being presented on 18 May as part of the current stocktaking process. 

In its conclusions, the EUA report says that "governments must be sensitive to the fact that the goals will not be achieved simply by changing legislation" and that "institutions need more functional autonomy as a fundamental condition for successful reform". 

It adds that the question of funding of reform has to be addressed as well as the broader issue of investment in higher education to meet the demands of Europe's developing knowledge societies. It says that "Europe's strength derives from the conception of higher education as a public responsibility responding to societal needs, and this requires the commitment to a long-term and sustainable public funding base".

ESIB, which has 50 members from 37 countries and represents over 11 million students in Europe, says that the Bologna Process must not be abused to carry out other reforms which are only on the national agenda in the name of the Bologna Process. 

A Spanish journalist cited the example of history of art in Spain as a possible example of where the Bologna Process had led to the disappearance of courses. Peter van der Hijden, deputy head of the Commission’s school and higher education unit, said that he was not aware of the Spanish case but pointed out that "the Bologna Process is sometimes used by member states to make changes, such as the Spanish case, other than those it was designed for".

ESIB's document entitled 'Bologna with student eyes' is one of the four core reports, alongside Trends IV, to be considered during the Bergen Summit.

ESIB press officer Thomas Nilsson points to a big difference between a decision at European level to include the social dimension (eg charging tuition fees for students, grants for students) across all the Bologna Process's action lines and what goes on in practice at national level and within institutions. ESIB wants ministers to adopt the social dimension as a priority and include it in the stocktaking process. "The ESIB Bologna survey clearly shows that the Scandinavian countries are ahead in both the social dimension and student participation [in the reform process], and that both the south west European and in particular the south east European countries lag behind in these areas," says Nilsson.

DG Education and Culture's deputy head of unit for school education and higher education, van der Hijden, said that the social dimension of the Bologna Process would not be discussed at the Bergen Summit, but that the Commission is in favour of an in-depth study on this issue. 

The Commission would ask questions such as whether more students have gone on to higher education under the new (for many member states) shortened three-year Bachelor programmes. The Commission has also addressed the issue of the funding gap in universities and notes that "while European higher education continues to rely almost exclusively on (limited) public funds, much stronger and lasting expansion has been possible in competitor countries thanks to a greater diversity of funding sources, with much higher contributions from industry and households".

The Bologna Process is designed to help give European higher education ministers a framework within which to reform their national systems. The process dates back to the Sorbonne Declaration, signed by four countries in 1998. A year later, in 1999, 29 countries signed up to the Bologna Declaration, following which ministers have met in Prague in 2001 and Berlin in 2003.

The process currently involves 40 countries with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine set to join during the Bergen Summit. Interest in the process has also been expressed from North Africa, central Asia (Kazakhstan) and the US.

In the Berlin communiqué in 2003, European education ministers noted the need for closer links between the European Higher Education Area and the European Research Area. They expressed the need to go beyond the two main cycles of higher education (Bachelors and Masters) to include the doctoral level as the third cycle in the process. They also called for a stocktaking evaluation of the process by the time of the 2005 Bergen Summit and committed themselves to having started the implementation of the two cycle system by 2005.

The process is tied to the broader Lisbon Strategy for the EU to become the world's most competitive, knowledge-based society by 2010. In Barcelona, in March 2002, the European Council concluded that European education and training systems should become a "world quality reference".

In its contribution to the Bergen Summit, the Commission refers to EU figures for tertiary education, access to higher education and research performance as "alarming".

The Bergen Summit of European education ministers runs from 19 to 20 May 2005

A Commission consultation paper calling for an integrated credit system for lifelong learning, building on the experience of the European Credit Transfer System is due out in June 2005

The Commission plans for a European Qualifications Framework for Lifelong Learning (as requested by the European Council in March 2005) to be adopted by 2006

The Commission is also considering how to relaunch the idea of a European Doctorate Label, which would be awarded to doctoral programmes with a clear European dimension

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