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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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In ‘Realising the European Higher Education Area’, Communiqué of the Conference of Ministers Responsible for Higher Education in Berlin on 19 September 2003. The ministers reinforced ENQA’s position by stating:

At the European level, Ministers call upon ENQA through its members, in co-operation with the EUA, EURASHE and ESIB, to develop an agreed set of standards, procedures and guidelines on quality assurance, to explore ways of ensuring an adequate peer review system for quality assurance and/or accreditation agencies or bodies, and to report back through the Follow-up Group to Ministers in 2005. Due account will be taken of the expertise of other quality assurance associations and networks.
(Berlin Communiqué 2003)

The Ministers communiqué also introduced the notion of ‘accountability’ for the first time, claiming that this responsibility rested with the individual institute within the constructs of national policy. They also indicated the following targets for national quality assurance systems to reach by 2005:

  • A definition of the responsibilities of the bodies and institutions involved.
  • Evaluation of programmes or institutions, including internal assessment, external review, participation of students and the publication of results.
  • A system of accreditation, certification or comparable procedures.
  • International participation, cooperation and networking.

For the purpose of this short paper the examination of the above-mentioned documents can only be considered as a review; the full rigour of documentation analysis techniques was not applied. However, I consider that there is sufficient ground to suggest that these four declarations depict an incremental movement; from a vision of an open European HE sector (1998), to a mission with objectives for a European knowledge-based citizenship (1999), to a strategy to meet the objectives for a higher education area (2001), to an operationalising phase to meet targets set (2003). Quality assurance as a tool was introduced in the Bologna Declaration, and the ENQA was gradually positioned as a central agency by both the Prague and Berlin communiqués. Subsequent to the present discourse of this paper an area lacking in research is the positioning of the ‘social model’ within these declarations. Wickham’s (2002) paper presents a macro perspective of the European social model entitled ‘The End of the European Social Model: Before it Began? Available from the Employment Research Centre (ERC) Trinity College.

Irish context HE sector

Duff et al. (2000) claim that since the 1960s the Republic of Ireland HE sector has gone through quantitative change as a result of internationalisation and globalisation. Indicators of change are given as: ‘massificiation’ of education and expansion in participation by students – in 1965 student enrolments were 19,000 compared to the expected student enrolments for 2005 of 120,000 (2000: 4); increase in State expenditure – £5 million in 1965 compared to £430 million in 1995 (2000: 3); the establishment of Regional Technical Colleges (RTCs) now termed Institutes of Technology (IoTs) and the DIT. Drivers of this change have been: economic development and growth; membership of the EC; opening of international and now global markets; increased competition and the strategy of gaining a competitive advantage; the IT revolution; political, economic, social and cultural change.

Ireland’s economic growth has been unprecedented in both the European and international contexts. Sociological theories of development could be applied (the author’s conjecture); in the 1960s Ireland was at Rostow’s (1960) Transitional Stage 2 or, as in Wallerstein’s (1959) World Systems Theory a ‘periphery’ of the ‘core’. However, in 2006 Ireland could claim to be nearing Stage 5 of Rostow’s model, ‘Mass consumption’, and in alignment with a ‘core’, the European Union. Even Daniel Bell’s (1973) thesis on ‘post-industrialisation and modernity’ could be applicable to the current Irish context (features include: increase in services sector, professionalisation of the workforce, increase in leisure activity, conspicuous consumption). Schweiger and Wickham’s research paper (2005) damping some of the above optimistic propositions, provides substantive evidence to suggest that Ireland is a ‘dependent economy’, over-reliant on foreign multi-national companies. While many academics claim that the fuel for this growth has its genesis in the HE sector and the ‘knowledge capital’ it has generated, in terms of Becker’s ‘Human capital’ theory (1993), however, which is in line with the approach adopted under the EU Lisbon agenda and national political rhetoric on education, Schweiger and Wickham (2005: 42–43) provide evidence that the state investment in education (in terms of GDP per capita) dropped in 2002 to 17.3 per cent which is below the European average of 25.1 per cent.