ENQA at the 2024 EHEA Ministerial Conference: what is next for the European Higher Education Area?

By Cristina Ghițulică, ENQA Vice-President and BFUG representative for Romania

On 29-30 May 2024, ENQA attended the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) Ministerial Conference in Tirana, Albania, having the opportunity to exchange with over 300 representatives of higher education stakeholders from across the EHEA and beyond. This flagship event marked the culmination of the past three years of work within the Bologna Process and provided an opportunity to reflect on its achievements and progress. Ministers for higher education from EHEA member countries approved the Tirana Ministerial Communiqué, which sets the policy priorities for the next three years, and approved the EHEA statements on the fundamental values of higher education.

While acknowledging the role of the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the EHEA (ESG) in promoting trust and transparency within and between higher education systems and in facilitating accountability and enhancement, the ministers have mandated ENQA, together with ESU, EUA and EURASHE (the E4 Group), and in cooperation with Business Europe, Education International and EQAR, to work on a revised version of the ESG by 2026. An adjustment, where required, of the European Approach for Quality Assurance of Joint Programmes is also envisioned. A key point in the Communiqué for ENQA is ensuring that the quality assurance of transnational education delivered worldwide is in line with the ESG and performed in such a way as to protect the interests of students.

For those not directly engaged in its meetings and activities, the Bologna Process might seem quite distant and abstract, but in its 25-year history, it has had a concrete impact on the development of higher education in the EHEA. Its key commitments of a three-cycle degree system, recognition in line with the Lisbon Convention, and quality assurance in line with the ESG form the basis for cross-border cooperation and mobility in higher education. ENQA is a consultative member of the Bologna Process and was represented in Tirana not only by a dedicated delegation composed by the President, Director and three Board members, but impressively also by around 20 representatives of ENQA members who attended as part of their national delegations. This strong presence is testament to the importance of quality assurance agencies in the higher education ecosystem, in particular for driving forward the Bologna reforms.

The speech of the ENQA President, Douglas Blackstock, to the Ministerial Conference highlighted the need for national authorities to ensure legal frameworks in which agencies can not only meet the expectations of the ESG, but also be flexible and responsive to the realities of higher education today. This builds on the points expressed in ENQA’s message to the EHEA Ministers, published in advance of the conference. Douglas underlined: “If we aspire to a dynamic, trust-based system of quality assurance, […] we should create the platform for those institutions, agencies and systems that are ready for more enhancement-oriented approaches to be able to create a genuine culture of quality.”

In conjunction with the Ministerial Conference, the Global Policy Forum also took place in Tirana, with quality assurance featuring high on the agenda. ENQA co-organised a session exploring regional perspectives on quality assurance, with representatives from the EHEA, Africa, Asia and Ibero-America. The speakers concluded that there is a strong alignment between the basic principles and key criteria of the respective frameworks for quality assurance, while each one also reflects regional priorities as well as contextual, cultural and historical specificities. Common challenges were discussed in terms of automatic recognition, quality assurance burden and protecting the interests of students in transnational education programmes. Subsequent discussions focussed primarily on the need to put students at the heart of the learning and teaching process, as well as for their meaningful involvement in quality assurance, an area that could benefit from global sharing of good practice and experience.

Looking forward, the next working period of the Bologna Process will very likely focus on priorities like the fundamental values of higher education, mobility, digital transition, the social dimension and student-centred learning. The Bologna Follow-up Group was mandated to work on the “future-proof development, dissemination and possible expansion” of the key commitments, and on proposals for the main priorities for the next decade. Each member country is expected to develop and publish an action plan “to address any remaining implementation gaps, and to promoting knowledge-sharing activities related to the EHEA.”

Work on the revision of the ESG will get fully underway in September, building on evidence gathered through the ENQA-coordinated QA-FIT project and with many further consultations across all stakeholders. A revision of the ECTS (European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System) Users’ Guide is also expected. There is certainly plenty of work to be done before the next Ministerial Conference, which will be co-hosted by Romania and Moldova in 2027. ENQA will maintain its commitment to fostering the implementation of the Bologna Process and to ensuring that the voice of quality assurance agencies is heard at the EHEA level.

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