July 2013

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Towards a model for the quality assurance and enhancement of higher education specific to Catalonia?

Josep Grifoll Saurí - Head of Quality Assessment department

In 1996 the (independent) Finnish Higher Education Evaluation Council was set up by the Finnish government, coinciding with the time when the Agència per a la Qualitat del Sistema Universitari a Catalunya (Catalan University Quality Assurance Agency, the current AQU Catalunya) consortium was set up under an agreement between the Executive Council of the Catalan government and the Catalan universities.

Coincidentally, the Catalan and Finnish QA agencies, together with other European agencies, joined together to found European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education in 2000. The association today consists of forty-one (41) government and/or university-promoted agencies that are internationally recognised.

The objectives of these European agencies under the umbrella of the ENQA were ambitious in that, together with the preservation of the rich diversity of different national university systems, common methodologies for the quality assurance and improvement of university education were to be developed.

The adoption of the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (referred to as the ESG), which were conceived with the cooperation of the universities and students, was a major turning point in this endeavour. These standards are aimed directly at promoting quality in each country, although indirectly they have clearly placed the protection of the users, who are increasingly of a more international nature, on a firmer footing.

Despite the difficulty of making predictions about the future within the scope of quality assurance and enhancement in higher education, three possible undercurrents at European scale are emerging:

  1. The first is a move in the direction of a greater European dimension in quality assurance systems. Are we about to see a European system for the quality accreditation of provision in higher education? If European universities and students want this to happen, it will. It is actually happening in certain areas at the present time. In any event, if Europe wants to be attractive to the world in terms of university education, careful attention will need to be paid to this issue.
    Changes and developments in the labour market for university graduates will also need to be taken into account. The public sector has clearly played a key role in employment opportunities for university graduates in each country, and many national regulations derive from this circumstance. Given the current squeeze on public sector spending and the growing percentage of the population that has been educated at university, the issue of graduate employment in the labour market as a whole remains unclear. If the public sector at national level is incapable of maintaining the level of graduate recruitment, something will need to takes its place. If this occurs, it will be necessary to listen carefully to the needs and requirements of the new creative areas of employment. In any case, if the international arena takes on new roles in graduate recruitment, this may well reinforce the idea of accreditation at European level.
  2. The second undercurrent may lead to a drastic reduction in the intensity of quality assurance. The technology transfer of QA has already occurred and in many cases been incorporated by a large number of universities. In other words, universities that operate according to criteria associated with the search for excellence will gain the trust of QA agencies and the public, in general, and the monitoring of the quality of their processes will become more effortless, probably through the use of broad scale systemic indicators: “A university that has gained public trust can easily demonstrate the quality of its services”. In such cases, thought needs to be given to regulatory mechanisms that provide for new opportunities for innovation.
  3. Stemming from the two prognoses above, the third involves the proposal to transform national QA agencies into places of encounter for academic communities and stakeholders with an interest in the quality of higher education. In advanced societies like Catalonia, the existence of a QA agency that encourages the participation of students, the educational community and sectors of production is a key factor to effectively interpreting the concept of quality as applied to higher education; moreover, doing so through constant dialogue according to international standards and expectations is essential for promoting and upholding excellence in Catalan universities.
    In their role as facilitators, there is still important room for progress to be made by QA agencies, particularly in relation to the challenges, albeit interesting, that they face, which include improvements to qualifications frameworks; the development and improvement of QA processes in new areas of education and training linked to new technologies and lifelong learning; and the recognition of competences and skills acquired outside of traditional structures.

Assegurament de la qualitat

If the abovementioned scenario materialises, it will remain to be seen how Catalonia deals with the new challenges. New tools being developed in Europe are based on enhancing the flexibility and speed of quality assurance, they encourage self-regulation by the universities themselves, they are more sensitive to the expectations of the different actors (which are also international), they encourage the participation of society, and there is increased open-mindedness to innovation.


Generalitat de Catalunya

c/. dels Vergós, 36-42. 08017 Barcelona. Tel.: +34 93 268 89 50

© 2013 AQU Catalunya - Legal number B-21.910-2008