Accreditation of joint programmes: headaches no more?

Accreditation of joint programmes: headaches no more?

Complex and fragmented procedures, contradictory requirements – external quality assurance of joint programmes might sound like a bureaucratic nightmare. Since last year, there’s been light at the end of the tunnel: European ministers of higher education agreed on a coherent, European approach for quality assuring joint programmes. Will it save academics and managers from headaches when thinking of how to have their joint programme accredited?

Joint programmes have been regarded as a hallmark of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) since the Bologna Process was first conceived. A truly European curriculum, offering students a genuinely European learning experience, they enshrine the necessary European dimensions in higher education at all levels the Bologna Declaration called for: curricular development, inter-institutional co-operation, mobility schemes and integrated programmes. But why do some higher education institutions – 17 years after Bologna – still face obstacles when setting up a joint programme?

Dealing with bureaucracy

Actual policy, that dismantles obstacles and removes red tape for joint programmes, has come slower than the bloomy language of ministerial communiqués would suggest. External quality assurance has for a long time been infamous as a major obstacle: too often joint programmes had to undergo multiple accreditations, by the different national quality assurance agency of the countries involved, each looking at the bits and pieces happening in their country.

The burden on institutions was heavy, and obviously such fragmented reviews did not capture the ‘jointness’ of these programmes, neglecting their essence, as the European University Association (EUA) described it in their 2015 Trends Report. Different national requirements made matters worse: for instance, contradictory requirements in different European countries as to the number of ECTS credits assigned to the final Master thesis.

Quality assurance agencies and higher education institutions have developed and tested approaches for single, integrated external quality assurance procedures for a number of years – many readers will have heard of Joint programmes: Quality Assurance and Recognition of degrees awarded (JOQAR), European Masters New Evaluation Methodology (EMNEM), Transparent European Accreditation decisions & Mutual recognition agreements (TEAM), (Transnational European Evaluation Project) TEEP, etc. Whatever the acronym, many projects reached the same hurdle sooner or later. National regulations from all different countries had to be incorporated, otherwise the accreditation decision or evaluation report would not be recognised everywhere.

European guidelines

But hold on, didn’t European ministers already in 2012 agree to “recognise quality assurance decisions of EQAR-registered agencies on joint and double degree programmes” (Bucharest Communiqué), thus agreeing on the European Standards and Guidelines (ESG) as the common ground?

There was never any doubt that the ESG applied to joint programmes, as well as to all higher education provisions in the EHEA. Since all EQAR-registered agencies have to demonstrate compliance with the ESG, this should suffice as a basis for recognising the accreditation or evaluation of a joint programme. However, there was a need to get more specific, to break the ESG down for the specific case of joint programmes.

The Bologna Follow-Up Group (BFUG) gave that task to a small ad-hoc expert group. The group drafted theEuropean Approach for Quality Assurance of Joint Programmes, which was later adopted by ministers. The European Approach includes a set of agreed standards. They can be used by higher education institutions in their internal quality assurance of joint programmes as well as by external quality assurance agencies.

Good news

For programmes that need external evaluation or accreditation at programme level, the European Approach provides an agreed external quality assurance procedure to be implemented by a suitable EQAR-registered agency, identified by the cooperating institutions. Adopting the European Approach, ministers made crystal clear that the standards are based on the agreed tools of the EHEA – nobody reinvented the wheel – and that they should be used without applying additional national criteria.

This is good news for institutions. Quality assurance should get less burdensome and it should be the EHEA framework – and only that – which serves as the reference. Quality assurance will finally do justice to a joint programme’s nature: integrated and truly European curricula – reviewed in an integrated and truly European quality assurance process.

But one must not forget that every commitment in the EHEA needs to be implemented by the national legislator, and so does the European Approach. In many countries, the legal framework will need to be adjusted to recognise external evaluation or accreditation according to the European Approach. We hear at many conferences and discussions that institutions are keen to use the European Approach and have high expectations. But they will also need to call upon their own national governments to let them use what their ministers signed up to in Yerevan.

Colin is Director of the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education (EQAR), Belgium.


European Approach for Quality Assurance of Joint Programmes

Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the EHEA (ESG)

Yerevan Communiqué (May 2015)