INSTITUTIONAL ACCREDITATION ACROSS EUROPE: DO ASSESSMENT CRITERIA MIRROR HIGHER EDUCATION’S MISSIONS?

O. Tavares , C. Sin 

CeiED - Interdisciplinary Research Centre for Education and Development, Lusófona University (PORTUGAL)
According to the European strategy for universities, these higher education institutions are uniquely located at the crossroads of education, research and innovation, serving both society and economy. Universities contribute to consolidate the European Education Area (EEA) and the European Research Area (ERA). Traditionally, teaching has been the dominant mission of higher education. Research gained priority later, while societal engagement has only very recently, at the turn of the century, came to feature explicitly among the missions for higher education. This paper aims to look at the quality assurance of higher education institutions, namely to what extent the criteria which inform the assessment and accreditation of institutions address the three missions. Therefore, the research question the paper responds to is: has quality assurance across Europe kept pace with the evolution in the missions attributed to higher education? In order to answer this question, the paper performs a qualitative analysis of the criteria for institutional assessment and accreditation across Europe, resorting to the guidelines, forms and other documents produced and employed by quality assurance agencies registered as members of ENQA (the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education). The documents were subjected to a content analysis through MaxQDA software and followed a grounded theory method adapted from Strauss and Corbin (1990).

Findings suggest that the criteria used by European quality assurance agencies are mainly focused on teaching and research missions, which somehow is sending the message that the third mission does not require as much investment as teaching and research. Institutions need primarily to demonstrate the quality of their teaching and learning activities, such as learning outcomes and their correspondence with the level of qualification in the national qualification’s framework, the adequate allocation of ECTS, the need for a formal diploma supplement, etc. Institutions need also to prove that adequate conditions for the production and improvement of research are provided and that they have systematic practices regularly monitored to ensure research-based teaching. However, the criteria related to the third mission (contribution to society, social relevance of teaching and research activities, knowledge transfer, impact on regional development) emerge with a relatively lower frequency, especially when compared to teaching and research, which are apparently still seen as missions that agencies seem to attribute greater importance to. In order to encourage and strengthen societal engagement of higher education institutions, quality agencies may include and assign equivalent value to criteria related to the third mission.