Quality assurance for higher education in a changing world

24 June 2021

From changing labour market needs to shifting online at the onset of the pandemic, higher education institutions have to keep pace with the changing environment in which they function. The same goes for External Quality Assurance (EQA) systems, which must also innovate and adapt their practices to remain relevant and useful for a rapidly expanding higher education sector. 

In a new book, A New Generation of External Quality Assurance, IIEP explores how external quality assurance has evolved since becoming a prominent feature of higher education reforms worldwide. At the start of the millennium, a global quality assurance model emerged as regional and international networks of quality assurance agencies cooperated. Setting pre-defined quality standards and criteria for self-assessments and peer reviews of study programmes and institutions became the global model for EQA.  

However, criticism of this model grew over time, and the authors explain how this led to innovations in external quality assurance. “The global model was increasingly seen as bureaucratic, heavy, expensive, and with uncertain benefits regarding quality improvement,” explains co-author Stamenka Uvalić-Trumbić, former head of section for higher education at UNESCO. “With this book, we wanted to collect the new trends of the decade that respond to these criticisms.” 

An international approach 

From Australia, Brazil, Egypt, across Europe, to India and beyond, the book documents emerging approaches in EQA through six main themes. By bringing these trends to the forefront, the book adds new value to conversations on how EQA should evolve internationally to remain relevant and address long-standing challenges and criticisms. 

"At a time when everything around us and in our lives are challenged, when all levels of our education systems are disrupted, this book comes out as a great addition to fill a gap in the field of quality assurance.  It offers a variety of different and innovative approaches to Quality Assurance and Accreditation of Higher Education.”

- Dr. Youhansen Y. Eid, President of the National Authority for Quality Assurance and Accreditation of Education, Egypt.

An over-arching theme of the book is how to sustain quality assurance over time. “When the same processes are repeated over and over, the gains of EQA diminish,” says co-author Michaela Martin, interim head of IIEP research and development. “Therefore, it is important for quality assurance to focus on new issues and to adopt new ways of functioning.” One way quality assurance has responded to this is by embracing a lighter or risk-based approach to reduce the number of external reviews and better cope with rapidly expanding higher education systems. And, as individual institutions strive for greater autonomy, external quality assurance agencies have also taken on a greater role in assessing and supporting internal quality assurance in institutions.   

Student learning at the centre 

Another new development is the focus on quality teaching and learning, as well as using a student-centred approach and focusing on learning outcomes. Reinforced by national qualifications frameworks, this aims to measure and evaluate learning and teaching through various qualitative and quantitative metrics. More broadly, the Sustainable Development Goals have highlighted the importance of using quality assurance to advance inclusiveness, equity, and lifelong learning within the sector. Having this reflected in quality assurance is new. 

The authors also explore trends surrounding the rapid development of micro-credentials and ways to assure quality of Open and Distance Learning (ODL), such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). “This is not likely to be a passing fad, so more systematic approaches to micro-credentialing are being developed, which in turn raise the issue of more relevant and suitable QA procedures,” explain the authors. This includes looking at ways to turn micro-credentials into stackable units, which could ultimately become full qualifications that are quality assured. 

In 2019, the European MOOC Consortium launched the Common Microcredential Framework. One benefit is that mirco-credentials can be recognized between different higher education institutions, allowing learners to move from one institution to another, and progress to a larger qualification, such as a bachelor’s or master’s degree. 

As for online learning, there is now widespread recognition that different external quality assurance processes for traditional higher education and ODL is not appropriate. For example, in the United Arab Emirates the Commission for Academic Accreditation formerly had special standards for e-learning. However, the criteria for e-learning standards are now interwoven within the standards for face-to-face teaching. And in India, about 15% of  universities will soon be able to provide existing degree programmes exclusively online,  so  long  as  the  programmes  are  not  in  disciplines  that  require  lab  courses  or  other  forms  of  hands-on  study.  

Improving the efficiency of EQA 

Online aspects are also permeating quality assurance processes themselves. The book explores new trends in this area, including online submission of self-assessment reports to reduce the documentation load. While these were in place prior to COVID-19, the authors say more blended models of quality assurance will likely become permanent features to reduce costs and improve efficiency. 

In Egypt, the National Authority for Quality Assurance and Accreditation of Education introduced a new user-friendly electronic application system that will increase the efficiency of the accreditation process. While they need to create a strong back up and security system, the benefits have been far-reaching. The new system has made quality assurance work easier, reduced paperwork, and produced more reliable results. 

Looking forward 

Finally, the authors conclude with a warning for the future. As job markets continue to evolve, so will quality assurance. Ongoing digitization and robotization will affect both the demand for skills and the supply of qualifications. New skills profiles will emerge, and some jobs will either take on new forms, or disappear completely. Therefore, the authors write, “for qualifications to remain relevant, their quality needs  to  be  trusted,  and  QA  needs  to  adapt  to  the  quickly  evolving job market.”

“Over the next few years, I believe this book will be an asset to both higher education institutions and quality assurance agencies to face the inevitable transformations and challenges in the higher education ecosystem."  

- Dr. Youhansen Y. Eid.


6 key themes in quality assurance (QA) innovation:

  • Renewed focus on quality of teaching and learning
  • QA of Open and Distance Learning
  • QA of internationalization
  • Societal impact and engagement
  • Strengthening management of higher education institutions through QA
  • Enhancing the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of external QA operations