Conference on Recent Trends in Quality Assurance

Conferencia Porto

A3ES and CIPES Conference

Porto, 11-13 October 2012

Recent Trends in Quality Assurance


Recent developments in quality assurance reveal an increasing push for accountability in both the U.S.A and Europe. In Europe, the Ministers and the Commission, despite a trust-based rhetoric (European cooperation, building the European Higher Education Area (EHEA), advancing the European dimension) are, for the name of transparency backing measures based upon an ethic of suspicion (accreditation systems, rankings, etc.). These measures are very far removed from improving quality in education and research. 

The OECD takes a different approach, based on assessing learning outcomes, by evaluating the skills and capabilities students have acquired at graduation (or shortly after) or the recognized experience gained by further competition. Learning outcomes also figure in the European Standards and Guidelines (ESG). They urge quality assurance programmes and awards for internal quality assurance within higher education institutions. This will see the development and setting out of explicit and formal learning outcomes. The ESG also hold that student assessment procedures should determine how far intended learning outcomes and other programme objectives have been met.

In several countries, UK and Australia, New Zealand and the United States, experiments with quality enhancement (QE), may be seen as universities bidding fair to regain trust by reasserting that quality remains their major responsibility, with the role of external agencies confined to quality audit. QE repatriates responsibility for the quality of learning processes back to the institution. External oversight will thus rely on institutional audits and less on such intrusive forms of quality assessment as programme level accreditation. Should QE endorse a flexible, negotiated model of evaluation that by definition is non-mandatory, and shaped by those participating in the acts of teaching and learning?

A new and emerging development in the processes of quality assurance is Risk Management. Risk management is a technique imported from business. It identifies, assesses and assigns priorities to risks the better to minimize if not eliminate the impact of untoward, threatening or negative factors in institutional development. Higher Education in Scotland associates risk management with quality enhancement on the grounds that enhancement is the outcome of change and innovation, both which involve some risk.  Accordingly, institutions are expected to manage risk and thus provide reasonable safeguards for their students. 

The approach is apparently different in England. The 2011 White Paper on Higher Education proposed that the risk each institution faces ought compulsorily to be assessed with risk level determining the frequency of QAA’s reviews. Low risk Institutions will face full institutional reviews less frequently than either new providers or institutions whose provision is of lower quality. However, a consultation on the White Paper proposals has closed on 20 September 2011 and the response of the government is not yet known, which creates uncertainty about the possible outcomes of the risk-management proposal. How far it will be possible to combine a risk-based quality assurance system with a genuine quality enhancement approach remains debatable.

Against this general backdrop, this Conference opens up a critical debate on recent developments in quality assurance, their advantages, their benefits and their unintended consequences.  It will not be a factual presentation of different approaches. On the contrary, the Conference offers members of quality agencies and staff of higher education institutions working with quality processes the opportunity to analyse emerging and most recent trends in quality assurance. It is an opportunity to compare trends in Europe with those in the U.S. and Latin America whilst weighing up the views and accounts of different actors and interests.