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Quality labels

Framework for the positioning of AQU Catalunya regarding subject-specific quality labels

Following evaluation strategies employed for university study programmes in the United States, there is a trend towards opening up quality assurance in Europe in a similar way for it to be of continental scope. Such an option is developed through so-called quality labels, which fundamentally and solely preconfigure two aspects in any given university degree course:

  • The minimum learning outcomes.
  • The basic elements required to facilitate achievement of the learning outcomes.

There has recently been an increase in the number of quality labels and, to some extent, there are those in each disciplinary sector who attempt to organise this, for different purposes. In certain fields, quality labels are also used to apply to the quality of education institutions.

The context of quality labels

Higher education is a public good that has always had components of the nature of a private good. With the growing internationalisation of society, the mobility of professionals increases. This may mean that the investment made by society in an individual who is educated at university does not always revert back to the same society that made the investment.

Although there are numerous ways that university education is funded, the norm in Europe is for it to be a mix of both public and private, with variations according to each country.

Both of these issues have an influence on the way in which the definition of the concept of quality is applied. Moreover, the interests of the different stakeholders, both national and international, do not always coincide in this regard. At all events, globalisation in the higher education sector is connected with a willingness of demonstrate quality at international level, either by competing or cooperating with other universities.

The establishment of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) aims at placing Europe at the head of higher education in the world. The EHEA is built on the basis of ministerial agreements that lay down recommendations. Each European state however continues to have full competence over university affairs, although the EHEA does presuppose the incorporation of dynamics of an international nature in national regulations.

As a matter of fact, in countries where university funding is important, the government is less likely to hand over the power of quality assurance to external bodies.

The government is seen to represent national stakeholders, in particular the population as a whole, which, through taxation, make the funding of state-run or national universities possible. In this case, national accreditation takes place in a scenario where priority is given to quality assurance, along with the principles of equity and equal opportunity. The fact remains, however, that the universities are free to apply for additional certifications of international recognition.

When education is funded mainly from private sources, new dynamics emerge, such as the search for exclusivity (positioning in a market) and corporatization, which are logical dynamics in globalised contexts of free competition and where individuals strive to stand out.

The position of AQU Catalunya on quality labels

Learning outcomes have become a priority in quality assurance in the EHEA. These outcomes are set by the universities, according to three ways that are non-exclusive:

  • In accordance with the principle of university autonomy and academic freedom and on the basis of the principles of quality assurance that recommend listening to and taking into account the needs and requirements of the different stakeholders.
  • In accordance with objectives laid down in public guidelines (either national or international).
  • In accordance with objectives laid down in standards associated with a particular quality label.

AQU Catalunya believes that the first of these should be defended wherever possible; hence it is a priority at AQU Catalunya to maintain and develop the Catalan model for quality assurance and for this to be positioned as an international model of reference, given that the other two ways are complementary in nature.

This means enhancing the value of quality assurance (reviews and evaluations) by AQU Catalunya, bearing in mind that the Agency has been reviewed at international level in accordance with the ESG. Moreover, as an agency listed with EQAR, AQU Catalunya can operate in other European countries and, in certain cases, accredit degree courses. 

Given that the stakeholders also pay attention to international benchmarks, AQU Catalunya is to promote ways for mutual recognition with other agencies. Its presence in the ECA facilitates the mutual recognition of joint programmes. 

In view of the above, and in reference to the third way (labels), AQU Catalunya agrees to:

  • Not specifically promote quality labels. AQU Catalunya shall thereby not act as a certification body for specific labels, but rather shall enter into the necessary agreements to provide this service together with other agencies recognised by ENQA that offer subject-specific quality labels.
  • Provide support to all universities in the university system in Catalonia that wish to obtain a quality label, and to integrate this as much as possible in the framework of accreditation by AQU Catalunya, provided they comply with certain characteristics. AQU Catalunya will therefore not accept responsibility for the additional costs of obtaining a label, aside from the coordination of the integrated process.
  • Recognise the external site visit and achievements associated with quality labels awarded, provided they comply with criteria that are equivalent to those laid down in the AQU Catalunya framework for programme accreditation.

On the basis of these objectives, AQU Catalunya will arbitrate two processes:

  • An open process: identification of quality labels that universities obtain on their own account and that may be recognised by AQU Catalunya, given the standing of the accreditation body, the quality criteria used and appropriate information between the university and the Agency. In this case, AQU Catalunya's Quality Assessment Commission, in accordance with its spheres of competence, shall be responsible for managing this process. To this end, it shall draw up and endorse the document, Criteria for dealing with quality labels obtained directly by universities, which is to set out the criteria and procedure for the recognition of quality labels obtained in the accreditation of degree courses. The objective is recognition of those parts of the procedure that comply with the same guidelines as those established by AQU Catalunya, and for them to be included in the external site visit where appropriate.
  • An integrated process: the processes for obtaining quality labels form part of the regular accreditation procedure carried out by AQU Catalunya. This approach is to be put into practice through agreements with international agencies that award quality label certificates and will therefore need to be developed preferably in English. AQU Catalunya's Quality Assessment Commission is to draw up and endorse the document Guide to obtaining a quality label for First and Second Cycle programmes, as part of accreditation by AQU Catalunya, which is to set out the procedure and timetable for obtaining the quality label together with programme accreditation. In this case, the additional costs associated with obtaining the quality label shall be the sole responsibility of the applicant university.

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