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The emergence of Quality Assurance in Irish Higher Education
A review of European and national policy and description of the Dublin Institute of Technology practice

Author - Aidan Kenny

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Quality Assurance: European context, higher education sector

European higher education institutions, for their part, have accepted the challenge and taken up a main role in constructing the European area of higher education, also in the wake of the fundamental principles laid down in the Bologna Magna Charta Universitatum of 1988. This is of the highest importance, given that Universities’ independence and autonomy ensure that higher education and research systems continuously adapt to changing needs, society’s demands and advances in scientific knowledge.
(Bologna Declaration 1999)

The Bologna Declaration of 1999 set in motion a policy agenda that has the potential to reshape the HE environment throughout the European Union. It was the successor of the so-called Sorbonne Joint Declaration, ‘On Harmonisation of the Architecture of the European Higher Education System’, by the four Ministers in charge for France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom signed in Sorbonne, Paris on 25 May 1998. The emphasis of this declaration was to establish a vision of an open HE system throughout Europe. Attention was drawn to developing a ‘continent’ focus on HE domains such as ‘intellectual, cultural, social and technical’. The main tenets of this declaration were; access to diverse programmes, enhanced language and IT proficiencies, recognition of first-cycle awards and mobility of students within the Eurozone.

This vision of an open HE sector in Europe was clarified in the Bologna Declaration (1999). The European Ministers of Education set out an agreed statement of intent for a ‘Europe of Knowledge’. The main emphasis of this declaration is to establish a ‘European Higher Education Area’ which is underpinned by ‘compatibility and comparability’. The overarching vision is much broader, encompassing the consolidation of a European citizenship in both social and cultural domains and the enhancement of the intellectual and scientific knowledge-base capacity of the citizenship. In order to face the competitive challenges posed by internationalisation in the twenty-first century, the declaration sets out six clear objectives to be met within this decade:

  1. easily readable and comparable degrees;
  2. two cycles (undergraduate and postgraduate);
  3. a system of credit transfer (ECTS);
  4. mobility of students (trans-European);
  5. European co-operation in Quality Assurance;European dimension in HE education.

The six objectives were further developed in Prague 2001, ‘Towards the European Higher Education Area’, Communiqué of the Meeting of European Ministers in Charge of Higher Education in Prague on 19 May 2001. The fifth objective, co-operation in quality assurance, which is the main contextual focus in this paper, was identified as having a ‘vital role’ in the HE sector.

Ministers called upon the universities and other higher education institutions, national agencies and the European Network of Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA), in cooperation with corresponding bodies from countries which are not members of ENQA, to collaborate in establishing a common framework of reference and to disseminate best practice.
(Prague Communiqué 2001)

With this statement the Ministers are clearly giving ENQA legitimacy and a strategic position as a prominent European quality assurance agency. The implicit suggestion is that ENQA should play a central role in quality assurance cooperation, the development of a common framework and benchmarking best practice.