Quality Assurance in European Higher Education

Article excerpt

WITH THE GOAL OF IMPROVING STUDENT MOBILITY between countries by 2010, the Bologna Process has helped make higher education systems across Europe more comparable. The efforts toward implementing Bologna, including the introduction of similar degree cycles and credit transfer systems, have spawned further postsecondary initiatives. These include the adoption of two quality assurance frameworks to help establish a common way of measuring educational outcomes: the Framework for Qualifications of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) and the European Qualifications Framework (EQF). In addition, individual countries are also creating National Qualification Frameworks to place their educational qualifications relative to each other and improve alignment with the overarching European frameworks.

In September 2003, in the Berlin Communiqué, the European ministers of education asked member states to elaborate a system of "comparable and compatible" qualifications for the EHEA. In 2005 the Bergen Conference adopted an overarching framework for qualifications in the EHEA, comprising the three Bologna degree cycles (bachelor's, master's, and Ph.D.), generic descriptors for each cycle based on learning outcomes and competencies, and credit ranges in the first and second cycles.

In April 2008, a second quality assurance framework, the EQF for lifelong learning, was officially signed. While the QA framework for the EHEA is intended as a reference point for all 46 signatories of the Bologna Declaration, the EQF applies only to members of the European Union.

Additionally, while the Bologna EHEA framework is only relevant to higher education, the EQF focuses on lifelong learning more broadly. It applies to vocational and educational training as well as higher education. At its core are eight reference levels, which according the European Commission "are defined by a set of descriptors indieating the learning outcomes relevant to the qualifications at that level in any system." The levels span the range of qualifications from approximately upper secondary school to the highest possible academic, professional or vocational qualifications.

"The EQF has a far wider application than university education. EQF encompasses all types of learning, whether academic or vocational, formal, informal, or nonformal, in everything that takes place after compulsory education. It is meant to be a tool for 'lifelong learning,' and is not limited to the Bologna reforms. The descriptors used in the Bologna Process to describe the three cycles (bachelors, masters, and Ph.D.) are closely related to the EQF levels 6, 7, and 8, but are not identical," says John Macdonald, spokesperson for Education, Training, Culture, and Youth at the European Commission.

One of the major goals of the recently adopted EQF is to help learners and educational providers make sense of the different educational systems across Europe, and facilitate mobility between countries and sectors (for instance, from vocational schools to universities). The Commission defines the EQF as "a common European reference framework which links countries' qualifications systems together, acting as a translation device to make qualifications more readable and understandable across different countries and systems in Europe. It has two principal aims: to promote citizens' mobility between countries and to facilitate their lifelong learning."

To achieve these goals, many EU countries are also creating their own NQFs. Although different countries have made varying degrees of progress, one of the major developments has been more focus on learning outcomes, referring to a student's knowledge, skills, and competence upon completion of a course or program. This makes it easier for educators to assess the compatibility of educational systems and sectors across national borders.

After the qualification frameworks have been elaborated at the national level, individual universities have to describe their own courses and programs and relate them to the European quality assurance frameworks. …