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Document 52005AE0387

Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on the Proposal for a Recommendation of the Council and of the European Parliament on further European cooperation in quality assurance in higher education (COM(2004) 642 final — 2004/0239 (COD))

OJ C 255, 14.10.2005, p. 72–75 (ES, CS, DA, DE, ET, EL, EN, FR, IT, LV, LT, HU, NL, PL, PT, SK, SL, FI, SV)

14.10.2005   

EN

Official Journal of the European Union

C 255/72


Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on the Proposal for a Recommendation of the Council and of the European Parliament on further European cooperation in quality assurance in higher education

(COM(2004) 642 final — 2004/0239 (COD))

(2005/C 255/14)

On 20 January 2005, the Council decided to consult the European Economic and Social Committee, under Article 262 of the Treaty establishing the European Community, on the abovementioned communication.

The Section for Employment, Social Affairs and Citizenship, which was responsible for preparing the Committee's work on the subject, adopted its opinion on 15 March 2005. The rapporteur was Mr Soares.

At its 416th plenary session, held on 6 and 7 April 2005 (meeting of 6 April), the European Economic and Social Committee adopted the following opinion by 144 votes to 2, with 6 abstentions.

1.   Introduction

1.1

Article 149(1) of the Treaty establishing the European Community stipulates that ‘the Community shall contribute to the development of quality education by encouraging cooperation between Member States and, if necessary, by supporting and supplementing their action, while fully respecting the responsibility of the Member States for the content of teaching and the organisation of education systems and their cultural and linguistic diversity.’

1.2

On 24 September 1998, the Council of Ministers approved a Recommendation on European cooperation in quality assurance in higher education, which ‘called on Member States to support or establish quality assurance systems and to encourage higher education institutions and competent authorities to cooperate and exchange experience’. It would be up to the Commission ‘to support such cooperation and to report on the implementation of the objectives of the Recommendation at European and Member State level’.

1.3

The report submitted by the Commission (1) demonstrates that major progress has been achieved ‘in establishing quality assurance systems and promoting cooperation’; however it emphasises that this is not yet enough, pointing out that ‘more far-reaching measures are needed in order to make European higher education perform better and become a more transparent and trustworthy brand for the people of Europe and for students and scholars from other continents’.

1.4

In September 2003, European education ministers met in Berlin as part of the Bologna process, working to bring about the European Higher Education Area, and concluded that quality assurance systems, based on a series of essential features — such as the evaluation of programmes or institutions through internal assessment and external review, student participation, publication of results and international participation — had generally speaking been implemented in all Member States.

1.5

At this time, they decided to call upon the European Network for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA) (2) to draw up ‘an agreed set of standards, procedures and guidelines on quality assurances, to explore ways of ensuring an adequate peer review for quality assurance and/or accreditation agencies or bodies, and to report back through the Follow-up Group to Ministers in 2005’.

1.6

The ministers also undertook to support the development of quality assurance at institutional, national and European level, and stressed that there was a need to draw up mutually shared criteria and methodologies for quality assurance. They likewise emphasised that, in keeping with the principle of institutional autonomy, responsibility for quality assurance in higher education lay first and foremost with each institution, providing the basis for genuine accountability of the academic system within the national quality framework.

1.7

Lastly, they therefore agreed that by 2005 national quality assurance systems should include:

a definition of the responsibilities of the bodies and institutions involved;

evaluation of programmes or institutions, including internal assessment, external review, participation of students and the publication of results;

a system of accreditation, certification or comparable procedures; and

international participation, co-operation and networking.

1.8

In compliance with Article 149(4) of the Treaty, the Commission presented this proposal for a Recommendation (3) to the Council and the Parliament, submitted here to the European Economic and Social Committee for an opinion.

1.9

The EESC understands the reasons put forward by the Commission and agrees with the principles set down for establishing and boosting the quality of higher education by placing good practice on an institutional footing and by developing quality management at European level. The systematic application of quality assurance methodologies as an instrument for continuously improving actual quality is the best way to secure genuine high quality higher education in the educational establishments of the EU, promoting university education in the various Member States and facilitating equality between the various national education systems.

1.10

The EESC reaffirms its view that it is extremely important to tackle this issue from a Community perspective, and endorses the approach adopted by the Commission for achieving the objectives targeted in the Lisbon strategy and, more specifically, in the conclusions of the March 2002 Barcelona European Council meeting, which stated that European education and training systems should become ‘a world quality reference by 2010’.

2.   Proposed recommendation

The proposal submitted by the Commission, based on the 1998 Recommendation, is designed to make a concrete contribution to the aim of mutual recognition of quality assurance systems and assessments across Europe.

2.1

The recommendation contains five steps for achieving mutual recognition:

2.1.1

‘Require all higher education institutions active within their territory to introduce or develop rigorous internal quality assurance mechanisms.

2.1.2

Require all quality assurance or accreditation agencies active within their territory to be independent in their assessments, to apply the features of quality assurance laid down in the Council Recommendation of September 1998 and to apply a common set of standards, procedures and guidelines, for assessment purposes.

2.1.3

Encourage quality assurance and accreditation agencies, together with organisations representing higher education, to set up a “European Register of Quality Assurance and Accreditation Agencies” and to define the conditions for registration.

2.1.4

Enable higher education institutions active within their territory to choose among quality assurance or accreditation agencies in the European Register, an agency which meets their needs and profile.

2.1.5

Accept the assessments made by all quality assurance and accreditation agencies listed in the European Register as a basis for decisions on licensing or funding of higher education institutions, including as regards such matters as eligibility for student grants and loans.’

2.2

In the proposal, the Commission is called upon to:

‘continue, in close cooperation with the Member States, its support for cooperation between higher education institutions, quality assurance and accreditation agencies, competent authorities and other bodies active in the field’; and

‘present triennial reports to the European Parliament, the Council, the Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions on progress in the development of quality assurance systems in the various Member States and on cooperation activities at European level, including the progress achieved with respect to the objectives’.

3.   The EESC's comments

3.1   General comments

3.1.1

The requirement for high quality education and training is vitally important for achieving the Lisbon Strategy objectives. In this connection, the EESC reiterates how important greater student and worker mobility is for developing the knowledge society in Europe. Such mobility may be a key factor in making a Europe-wide labour market a reality and building a more competitive knowledge-based society.

3.1.2

This is also the tenor of the proposed Recommendation since, in order to fully achieve such mobility, mutual recognition of qualifications and diplomas is necessary, and this in turn requires effective, coherent mechanisms throughout Europe involving all the parties concerned. Here it is particularly important that suitable working methods be devised for assessing the quality of higher education in Europe and for its accreditation.

3.1.3

Nevertheless, the EESC feels that these assessment mechanisms, which are of course important for boosting the quality of higher education and for giving it credibility, must not be overly dependent on the immediate requirements of the market, since long-term objectives and prospects for education have to be taken into account, starting with basic research.

3.1.4

Moreover, the EESC stresses that funding for higher education is still a key factor in achieving the fundamental objectives concerned. It would not be right for higher education establishments to be prevented from gaining access to better quality evaluation and accreditation agencies because of financial constraints.

3.1.5

The current Commission initiative set out in the proposed Council Recommendation is in line with the stance the Committee adopted in 1997 (4), in particular where it stated that:

it would be necessary ‘to move firmly towards the adoption of quality assurance systems which include standardized assessment methods which can be used by all those who voluntarily accept assessment as a system for helping to bring about improvements and do not regard it as an imposition’;

‘the principle of university autonomy is (…) [not] under debate (…). It is however important for citizens to be aware which teaching establishments in Europe have introduced assessment as a systematic quality assurance method in their organizations (…) [and] which institutions use standardized quality assessment methods’;

‘besides allowing each Member State and teaching establishment to use its own criteria, the Commission should at the same time encourage the implementation of common criteria which show the level of teaching quality from a Community perspective’.

3.1.6

The EESC is aware of the need for young Europeans and the public in general to be informed about the quality of the various higher education establishments.

However, the standards and criteria used to assess or accredit European establishments must serve as points of reference to boost transparency and make it easier to draw comparisons across Europe and, at the same time, do more to promote diversity between institutions and help ensure that they are geared to the needs of society today, rather than contribute to the harmonization of Member States' regulations and laws, expressly left out of the Union's Treaty.

3.1.7

In a knowledge society which is to provide the basis for building up the most advanced economic, social, technological and cultural area in the world, quality assurance systems and overall quality processes are indispensable for progress and for improving the service provided to customers and users.

For this reason, Member States should provide educational establishments with adequate resources to develop quality evaluation procedures for improving education as a product. Moreover, links between universities and society in general should be stepped up to enable young people with higher education to enter the labour market more easily; this entails the social partners being more involved in, and providing greater back-up for, higher education quality assurance systems and better knowledge of the future needs of the labour market .

3.1.8

The EESC would reassert two key principles for achieving the objectives relating to mutual recognition, which should be expressly mentioned in the text of the Recommendation to Member States:

quality assurance systems cannot be imposed, but have to be accepted by those involved, in particular lecturers and academic authorities, and must ultimately aim to help improve the higher education provided in the Member States;

higher education establishments must have access to the resources needed to fund structures for promoting, supporting and implementing quality methods and techniques, in particular for involving of those parties actually providing the education, which is indispensable.

3.2   Specific comments

3.2.1

The EESC shares the view that the criteria and standards applying in each institution for developing internal quality assessment methods must be rooted in the framework in which the institution itself operates.

The key elements for making systematic improvements must be based on these internal quality assurance mechanisms, together with the use of learning outcomes and competences. Such improvements must above all keep pace with the changing needs of society, as identified by stakeholder panels involving university teachers, professionals, graduates, experts in the fields in question, students and the social partners.

3.2.2

The EESC welcomes the proposal to draw up an ENQA Handbook of quality assurance procedures, containing a number of commonly accepted models or protocols, based on good practice in Member States. The handbook should however focus as much as possible on promoting quality assurance in educational establishments not yet applying this practice, and on encouraging greater use in those institutions which already do.

It also agrees with the Commission on the need to define the principles for assuring quality across Europe, to be included in the ENQA Handbook, especially as regards university autonomy, public accountability and the independence of external evaluation and/or accreditation agencies, proportionality and fairness; these are principles to which all the parties should be able to adhere.

3.2.3

The EESC feels it is vital to ensure that the agencies carrying out external assessments of higher education establishments should meet high standards of independence and professionalism.

It is nevertheless important to clarify what is meant by independence here, and whether these agencies should be profit-making or not. It is essential to ensure that these agencies are genuinely independent in relation to the organisations undergoing evaluation, which leads to the second question as to whether or not they should be profit-making. It is clear that the agencies must have the necessary means to do their job (which includes being paid for the work they do), however, if they were to operate more along the lines of a business, with activities clearly geared to profit, this might jeopardise their very independence.

3.2.4

Creating a European Registry of Quality Assurance and Accreditation Agencies is an interesting, consensus-based idea, but the Recommendation is not clear about the administration mechanisms for the Registry; these presuppose that the quality of the agencies actually carrying out the quality evaluation of the higher education establishments will itself be assessed and assured, and will ultimately enable qualifications to be accepted and recognised within and outside Europe.

3.2.4.1

The EESC recommends that the Commission consider the possibility that the Registry distinguish between (a) accreditations that establish basic European references for the main categories of profession and (b) quality and accreditation provisions for specialised or specific categories.

3.2.5

The EESC welcomes the idea of making higher education establishments accountable by allowing them to choose a quality assurance and accreditation agency which meets their needs and profile, provided that this agency figures in the Register and is recognised by the country concerned as being independent and trustworthy.

The possibility for universities to develop an accreditation strategy which is most suitable for their particular vocation and objectives should not, however, lead to a situation where institutions are classified depending on the quality of the agencies chosen.

The EESC would warn those concerned that if the quality assurance and accreditation agencies are themselves of different levels of quality, then there is a serious risk that this might affect the quality of the evaluation itself, thus leading to different classifications of the higher education institutions.

3.2.6

The EESC deems it important that the current national quality accreditation systems be dovetailed with the European accreditation arrangements.

In fact, Member States are responsible for organising the national quality assurance and accreditation systems they need to make decisions on whether or not to grant licences or provide funding for universities. However, these should be dovetailed with European accreditation arrangements so as to facilitate mutual recognition of qualifications and diplomas.

Accreditation criteria and certification by non-Member States could constitute a tool for promoting the image of these institutions and would not be funded by the state.

Although these alternatives are not the same in terms of what they mean for making Member States responsible for providing quality education, the EESC deems it positive that the Commission ‘supports the setting up and testing phase of transnational evaluation and accreditation of single and joint programmes of studies’, together with the establishment of ‘European accreditation in fields like medicine or engineering’, which could represent a key step towards allowing the ‘much debated “mutual recognition” [to] become a reality’.

3.2.7

One of the principles on which the Recommendation is basing quality assurance systems is the involvement of all the stakeholders.

The EESC believes that socio-economic operators have an important contribution to make here, with their particular experience which could be most valuable in terms of the methods used. Employers' and workers' organisations, as forums for voicing labour market concerns, together with other directly affected parties, must be able to play a key role in this whole process of making systematic improvements to the quality of higher education in Europe.

Brussels, 6 April 2005.

The President

of the European Economic and Social Committee

Anne-Marie SIGMUND


(1)  Report from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions (COM) 620 final of 30.9.2004).

(2)  This network was set up in 2000 and incorporates 50 quality assurance and accreditation agencies from 30 European countries.

(3)  In follow-up to the assessment in Recommendation 98/561/EC of 24 September 1998 on European cooperation in quality assurance in higher education.

(4)  EESC Opinion on the Proposal for a Council Recommendation on European cooperation in quality assurance in higher education (COM(97) 159 final - 97/0121 (SYN) – O J C 19 – 20.1.1998.


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