Policy brief: European strategy for universities

On 18 January, the European Commission published the Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions on a European strategy for universities  and a Proposal for a Council Recommendation on building bridges for effective European higher education cooperation.

The objective of the European strategy for universities is to support and enable universities to adapt to current challenges, so they could contribute to the Europe’s resilience and recovery. In this way, higher education institutions could affirm more strongly their role in the society; and to do so, engaging effectively in transnational cooperation, based on shared values, is crucial. The document is identifying insufficient funding, the need to adapt to the rapid change in the skills demand, the necessity to increase inclusiveness, diversity and gender equality in higher education, the threats to fundamental and academic value and the competition on a global scene of education and research as challenges that universities have to overcome, in order to achieve their role as the engine for social and economic development in Europe.

Transnational alliances of higher education institutions, based on the Erasmus+ European Universities initiative, with a legal statute and delivering joint European degrees; and the generalisation of the European Student Card initiative are the four flagship initiatives promoted by the Strategy.

The European dimensions of higher education is part of the initial objectives of the Bologna process. Building on the last 20 years achievements and the European alliances experience, the Council Recommendation on building bridges for effective European higher education cooperation is a first step for overcoming difficulties related to the delivery of joint transnational educational activities and programs or the lack of a legal statutes of alliances of European higher education institutions, so that all “learners, staff and researchers, can benefit from simplified transnational cooperation”. Shared European values and transnational cooperation are the “basis for developing quality learning, teaching and research” and are contributing to the “strengthening of democratic societies”. The insufficient implementation of the European Approach for the Quality Assurance of Joint Programmes is identified among the challenges to effective cooperation.

What is relevant for QA agencies?

Whilst this is an EU policy initiative, it will be of interest to all ENQA members and affiliates given the involvement of universities from across the European Higher Education Area in the alliances.

In order to support the development of joint transnational provisions, the Recommendation on building bridges for effective European higher education cooperation states the need to implement automatic mutual recognition, based on the information on external quality assurance, according to the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (ESG), included in the Database of External Quality Assurance Results (DEQAR). Recognition of prior learning, considering “transparent and fair quality requirements” is another recommendation for the member states.

External quality assurance and accreditation of joint educational programmes is seen as the main pillar to achieve trust, by both documents. Trust enables mobility and cooperation.

In order to so, at point 7, the Recommendation is providing several measures in the field of external quality assurance.

Moving towards the use of institutional-based external quality assurance, while considering the possibility to allow self-accreditation of programmes. For those countries where the programme-based external quality assurance is a requirement, the European Approach for the Quality Assurance of Joint Programmes, by one single EQAR registered agency, should be used, without any barriers, like further procedural steps. The re-accreditation of joint transnational programmes should be required only in case of substantial changes occurring.

High-quality virtual collaborative learning, as part of hybrid approaches, should be supported, in order to enable inclusive and student-centred transnational cooperation. Life-long learning high-quality provisions should answer to the rapidly changing demand for skills.

ENQA encourages its members to engage in dialogue with appropriate national authorities and investigate the possibility of external quality assurance procedures simplification and application of the European Approach for the Quality Assurance of Joint Programmes. External quality assurance should not be a barrier for the development of transnational education provisions, but an enabler for high-quality and innovative such programs and courses.

How is ENQA working on these topics?

In 2017, the E4 Group (ENQA, EUA, EURASHE and ESU) and EQAR published a set of guiding questions and key considerations to support higher education institutions and agencies that engage in or consider engaging in cross-border quality assurance activities within the EHEA. To support the use of the European Approach, ENQA was a partner in the ImpEA project (Facilitating implementation of the European Approach for Quality Assurance of Joint Programmes) in 2017-2020. The outcomes of the project include a report on current use of the European Approach as well as a practical toolkit.

Moreover, ENQA considers the European Framework for the Comprehensive Quality Assurance of European Universities, to which development, within the EUniQ project, ENQA and nine of its members have largely contributed, as an important tool to contribute to the work towards a legal statute for alliances of higher education institutions. A QA Development Roadmap was also elaborated.

It is also relevant to remind colleagues, in the context of these current recommendations, the report produced by ENQA’s working group on the quality assurance of e-learning in 2016-2018, that provides some additional considerations for higher education institutions and quality assurance agencies as to how the ESG can be specifically applied to e-learning.

An ENQA working group Academic integrity was established in 2021 to discuss the role of quality assurance agencies in supporting academic integrity and combatting fraud in higher education.

ENQA, as the designated stakeholder organisation of quality assurance agencies in the EHEA, should be the main partner in the announced 2023 process of Recommendation on further European cooperation in Quality Assurance in higher education  revision.

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