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May-June 2010

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Quality in European Higher Education: The Influence of the Bologna Process

Over the last several decades, the quality of teaching and learning in colleges and universities has become an issue of growing concern and scrutiny in many countries around the world. Despite the fact that there is no shared definition of the term “quality,” many European higher education institutions have established quality-management systems and are making continuous efforts to ensure and improve the quality of teaching and learning.

But these efforts tend to be compromised to some extent by quality seen as an aspect of accountability or of standard-setting. Increasingly, internal quality management is complemented by external quality-assurance mechanisms, complete with quantifiable indicators, that reflect a considerable loss of public trust in higher education. Moreover, even within higher education, quality measures that focus on teaching and learning come into conflict with quality as defined by research reputation.

Here I will describe how the notion of quality in teaching and learning has evolved in the attempt to establish a European higher education area, and more particularly in the context of the Bologna Process. I will then analyze the further quality-enhancement effort represented by the Tuning project. Finally, I will discuss the influence of national and international rankings on notions of quality. The conflicting views of quality as continuously improving levels of teaching and learning versus quality as represented by research reputation have led to a set of contradictions that dog the various approaches to improving the quality of higher education in Europe.

Quality in the Framework of the Bologna Process

The Bologna Declaration was issued in 1999 when the European ministers of education met to celebrate the 600th anniversary of the University of Bologna. The Declaration had as its main goal the establishment of a European Higher Education Area by the year 2010 by means of the “harmonization” of the disparate systems of higher education in the region.

This intergovernmental initiative was thought to be important for two main reasons. First, the creation of a harmonized regional higher education space was supposed to make European higher education more attractive and competitive, in particular vis-à-vis US higher education. Second, the harmonization or alignment of higher education structures was supposed to ease and increase the intra-European mobility of students, credits, and workers. Thus, in the context of Bologna, European relationships to the external world of higher education were dominated by a competition agenda, while intra-European relationships in the world of higher education were dominated by an agenda of cooperation and mutual trust.

However, with the growth in the number of European countries supporting this undertaking by signing the Bologna Declaration (from 26 in 1999 to 46 in 2009)—reaching from Iceland in the north to Turkey in the south and from Portugal in the west to Azerbaijan in the east—it became increasingly impossible to assume that all of these higher education systems were providing an education of equal quality. The reform agenda constituted by the Bologna Declaration—by now generally called the “Bologna Process”—included the promotion of European cooperation in ensuring quality via the development of comparable criteria and assessment methodologies for collegiate learning.

The reform agenda constituted by the Bologna Declaration…included the promotion of European cooperation in ensuring quality via the development of comparable criteria and assessment methodologies for collegiate learning.

An informal working group, the “Joint Quality Initiative,” was established and given the task “to elaborate a framework of comparable and compatible qualifications for the higher education systems, which should seek to describe qualifications in terms of workload, level, learning outcomes, competences and profile” (Dublin Descriptors, 2004). The Dublin Descriptors, as these were called, were meant to be a frame of reference to enable the recognition of qualifications and competences acquired at institutions of higher education in one country by those in another. This included the formulation of how a number of core competences would develop from degree level to degree level in order to differentiate systematically among the bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees.

The Descriptors identified five core competences or key qualifications—knowledge and understanding, applying knowledge and understanding, making judgements, communication, and learning skills—and described what a given graduate from any of the three degree levels should be able to know and to do. For example, with respect to making judgments, a graduate with a bachelor's degree should be able to gather and interpret relevant data and reflect on the issues under consideration; a master's graduate should be able to integrate knowledge and handle complexities, as well as make judgements with incomplete data; a holder of a PhD should be able to carry out critical analysis and evaluation and synthesize new and complex ideas.

These abilities and competences are expected to be assessed, so the core competences have to be defined, made explicit, and integrated into each subject and program. This implies that for each course or program, not only subject-specific learning outcomes but also the generic skills that a student is expected to acquire have to be defined and the curricula be revised to teach them.

In this shift of attention from what is taught to what the student is expected to know and be able to do at the end of the course, module, or program, the teacher is cast in the role of a facilitator of learning experiences who is also expected to integrate opportunities for the acquisition of generic skills into the subject matter. For example, students might practice their teamwork skills through group projects or practice their communication skills by doing presentations. Although these examples look a lot like traditional strategies for enriching teaching practice, the idea is to make such components of the learning experience more explicit, subject to assessment, and eligible for the acquisition of credits.

However, the assessment of mastery not only of the subject matter but of generic skills continues to be riddled with problems. Recent European-wide studies of the implementation of the Bologna reforms have shown that the size of the modules to be assessed, the shift from teaching goals to learning outcomes, and the transmission of generic skills and their assessment are the issues that have been the least clarified and about which there is no shared practice. In particular, faculty have little knowledge about appropriate assessment strategies for such skills and few opportunities to acquire such knowledge; many feel that they are left to solve the problem by themselves. Compared to these questions about the teaching, learning, and assessment of general intellectual skills, the structural reforms of the Bologna process have been relatively easy to implement.

The Widening of the Quality Framework: “Tuning”

Although the Dublin Descriptors are focused on general intellectual skills, there is also work being done on subject-specific model curricula, especially in the project “Tuning Educational Structures in Europe” (known as the “Tuning Project”), which began in the year 2000. Its aim is to align curricular structures, programs, and teaching across the various national systems and to integrate quality standards into the structures and content of program curricula such that they can be evaluated in comparable ways.

The Tuning Project provides guidelines for the implementation of comparable degree structures; for a credit transfer and accumulation system; for the transmission of generic and subject-specific competences; for changes that are needed in teaching, learning, and assessment; and finally for the enhancement of educational quality. It strongly supports the shift in focus from teaching to learning and has developed model curricula for nine subjects so far.

The Tuning Project operates at the level of the disciplines rather than that of the educational system. One of the main innovations that Tuning has generated is the linkage between learning outcomes, competences, and ECTS (European Credit Transfer System) workload-based credits.

The project has come up with substantive and helpful definitions of these concepts. Thus it defines “learning outcomes” as “statements of what a learner is expected to know, understand and/or be able to demonstrate after completion of learning. … Learning outcomes specify the requirements for award of credit” (Tuning 2007, p. 3). “Competences”' are defined as “a dynamic combination of knowledge, understanding, skills, and abilities. Fostering competences is the object of educational programmes. Competences will be formed in various course units and assessed at different stages.”

Each unit—be it a course, a module, or a programme or cycle of study—has its own set of learning outcomes formulated in terms of competences. In addition, to each of these units credit points are attached that reflect the student workload that is thought to be necessary to achieve the learning outcomes and acquire the relevant competences. As a rule, one European credit point equals 25 to 30 hours of student workload; in a given academic year, full-time students are expected to earn approximately 60 credit points.

TUNING HISTORY

The Tuning template for history starts with an introduction of the subject area and a description of the degree it offers. It goes on to define the typical occupations of history graduates from all levels (bachelor's, master's, and doctorate) and the role of history as a subject area in other degree programs (e.g., the arts, philosophy, archaeology, and so on).

Learning outcomes and competences are defined for the various levels. A student graduating from a history program with a bachelor degree, for example, should

  • possess general knowledge with respect to the methodologies, tools, and issues of all the broad chronological divisions into which history is normally divided, from ancient to recent times;

  • have specific knowledge of at least one of the above periods or of a diachronic theme;

  • be aware of how historical interests, categories, and problems change with time and how historiographical debate is linked to the political and cultural concerns of each epoch;

  • have demonstrated the ability to present in oral and written form a medium-length piece of research which demonstrates the ability to retrieve bibliographical information and primary sources and use them to address an historiographical problem.

These definitions are followed by a distribution of workload and credit points.

The last part of the template is comprised of clusters of competences and their connection to teaching, learning, and assessment for purposes of quality enhancement. A list of 31 subject-specific skills and competences for history is added as an annex to the template.

The general approach to teaching and learning and the competences the students are expected to acquire during a given course or program of study are expected to become more comparable across Europe.

The results and model curricula of the Tuning Project are on offer to all European faculty and curriculum developers, who are invited to familiarize themselves with the new terminology, approaches, and practices in the shift from teacher-centered to student-centered learning. The project itself has no mandate to insist on implementation or to monitor and control the application of the principles and standards it has recommended.

So far no one knows how many teachers and curriculum developers have started to base their work on the Tuning Project recommendations, but accreditation and quality-assurance agencies are beginning to use its recommendations in developing their assessment criteria. The project is very active in disseminating its work and developing it further, in particular through model curricula in more subjects and the inclusion of doctoral education and training as the third cycle or level.

The model curricula are formulated generically—i.e., Tuning does not prescribe what subject matter should be taught in a given module or program. Thus, a French engineering program will still reflect the French conception of an engineer (primarily a manager) rather than the German one (primarily someone who fixes or invents things). But the general approach to teaching and learning and the competences the students are expected to acquire during a given course or program of study are expected to become more comparable across Europe.

European Quality Assurance

The European conception of quality is widened by an initiative of the European Commission, namely the development of a European Qualifications Framework (EQF), to which all national qualifications frameworks have to be adapted. Working within a framework of lifelong learning, the EQF conceptualizes the levels of education as a continuously progressing sequence of learning and the acquisition of competences. It establishes eight levels of education and provides descriptors for each level in three dimensions: knowledge, skills and competences.

Higher education qualifications are described in levels six to eight, which correspond to the bachelor's, master's, and PhD degrees. All descriptors address both professional and academic practice, thus making it possible to decouple eligibility for access into higher education from levels of school-leaving certificates. For example, people who can prove that they have acquired the knowledge, skills and competences that characterize level six through professional practice or informal learning become eligible for admission into a master's program. Thus the quality agenda has been linked to the aim of widening participation in higher education.

Tuning level descriptors and curricular models especially are forming a basis for accreditation and evaluation at the European level. ENQA, the European Network for Quality Assurance in Higher Education, is the leading body for encouraging European cooperation in quality assurance. The network has initiated a European Register of Quality Assurance Agencies, in which national quality assurance and accreditation agencies can become members.

ENQA has been involved in the development of the EQF by providing experts to the European Commission in the various stages of discussion and formulation and acting as an advisory body to the process. ENQA is also active in the dissemination of the EQF and supports its implementation at the national level through its members, the national quality-assurance and accreditation agencies.

Membership in ENQA means that the national agencies must follow the standards and guidelines for quality assurance established by ENQA, which in turn takes its cue from the Tuning Project in determining the standards for the evaluation of the degree programs and quality-assurance procedures of higher education institutions. It has become almost impossible not to be a member of the ENQA network, because if a national or regional quality-assurance or accreditation agency does not seek membership, the programs or institutions it accredits or evaluates will not be recognised as being of comparable quality to those of the ENQA members.

Equity versus Selectivity

On the one hand, European higher education systems are making efforts to accommodate additional numbers and types of students, especially those from non-traditional groups, as well as viewing advanced education as a lifelong undertaking. On the other hand, rankings, league tables, and national performance-measuring exercises (e.g., the British Research Assessment Exercise or the German Excellence Initiative) have generated an intense competition among universities, which vie for faculty and student talent—especially if the outcomes of rankings are linked to funding decisions, as they are in the national performance measurements. As a consequence, institutions are becoming, or want to become, increasingly selective in their admission procedures. Competition has moved inside the European higher education area, and the result is a growing vertical stratification of higher education.

We can observe a division of the notion of quality in higher education into research quality—constructed through reputation and output indicators—on the one hand and access combined with attention to quality in teaching and learning on the other. Academics are likely to claim that quality issues should remain in their hands, while the increasing consensus of quality-assurance agencies at the European level is that quality should be defined according to criteria of usefulness and relevance.

The picture is further complicated by the fact that in most continental European countries, faculty still believe that there is a strong nexus between teaching and research and that a university education is distinguished from other kinds and levels of education by educating the “best” students through research. At the same time, the European Qualifications Framework emphasizes permeability and widened access, entailing the recognition of different kinds of competences and skills acquired in different places and in different stages of life as potential parts of a degree.

Persisting Contradictions

Despite the fact that Europeans still tend to look at the American higher education system when seeking solutions to prevailing problems, the Bologna Process—despite all its existing shortcomings, paradoxes, and ambiguous goals—has contributed to the emergence of a European mainstream that is different from Anglo-American higher education models. The vision of the Bologna Process is to have a European higher education area with a system of easily recognisable and compatible degrees, a system of transferable credits that can be accumulated towards a degree in various ways, and quality standards that can form the basis of renewed trust and mutual recognition. However, a number of contradictions continue to persist.

First, further expansion through widening access will not remove existing inequalities among institutions. Indeed, Brennan, Naidoo, and Patel (2009) have pointed out that the most probable trend will be one of further vertical differentiation and stratification. The question will no longer be what someone studied but where someone studied as a sector of elite institutions that reinforce existing inequalities within the mass systems of higher education continues to emerge. At the same time, while expansion means more heterogeneity in expectations (of the students) and functions (of the institutions), a countervailing trend will be the tendency of institutions to imitate the most prestigious among them rather than to become more diverse.

Second, the thrust of the Bologna Process and of the work of ENQA and the Tuning Project is directed at convergence and the equivalence of quality standards, leading to cross-national evaluation and quality-assurance processes in order to ensure the comparability of degrees. In contrast, vertical differentiation emphasizes differences (often expressed in positions on ranking scales), while at the same time reducing them as every institution opts to play the game and strives to imitate those higher up on the scale. What David Dill calls an “academic arms race” (2009) will make it all the more difficult for Europe to achieve an acceptable balance between harmonization and differentiation.

Third, there is a danger that eventually an internationally accredited group of elite institutions will emerge within Europe that will be independent from nationally regulated quality-assurance mechanisms. The question that needs to be asked in this context is whether some universities within a given national system of higher education should remain part of that system or whether they should be allowed to opt out of it.

Europe has always been proud of its rich cultural traditions and identities, styles of teaching and learning, and curricula. So horizontal, functional differentiation has served most European higher education systems well. It remains to be seen whether Europe can harmonize its systems of higher education and at the same time maintain that rich diversity and honor more than one form of excellence.

An “academic arms race” will make it all the more difficult for Europe to achieve an acceptable balance between harmonization and differentiation.

Resources

1. Brennan, J., Naidoo, R. and Patel, K. Kehm, B. M., Huisman, J. and Stensaker, B. (eds) (2009) Quality, equity and the social dimension: The shift from the national to the European level. The European Higher Education Area: Perspectives on a moving target, Sense Publishers, Rotterdam, Taipei.

2. Dill, D. Kehm, B. M. and Stensaker, B. (eds) (2009) Convergence and diversity: The role and influence of university rankings. University rankings, diversity and the new landscape of higher education, Sense Publishers, Rotterdam, Taipei.

3. Dublin Descriptors (2004) , URL: http://www.eua.be. Retrieved 28 February 2009

4. ENQA. , URL: http://www.enqa.en.

5. European Qualifications Framework for Lifelong Learning (EQF) (2008) Luxemburg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, (Also available at: http://ec.europa.eu/education/policies/educ/eqf08_en.pdf.)

6. Kehm, B. M. Kehm, B. M., Huisman, J. and Stensaker, B. (eds) (2009) New forms of doctoral education and training in the European Higher Education Area. The European Higher Education Area: Perspectives on a moving target, Sense Publishers, Rotterdam, Taipei.

7. Stensaker, B. and Gornitzka, A. Kehm, B. M., Huisman, J. and Stensaker, B. (eds) (2009) The ingredients of trust in European higher education. The European Higher Education Area: Perspectives on a moving target, Sense Publishers, Rotterdam, Taipei.

8. Tuning Project (2007) Tuning education structures in Europe: Reference points for the design and delivery of degree programmes in physics, University of Deusto, Bilbao. (Also available at http://tuning.unideusto.org.

Barbara Kehm is professor of higher education research and director of the International Centre for Higher Education Research (INCHER) at Kassel University in Germany. She has done extensive research on issues of internationalization in higher education, in particular on the Bologna Process and new forms of governance in European higher education.

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