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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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Thus far I have outlined quality assurance in the broad European context and with specific reference to national policy and local DIT policy. I suggest that there seemed to be a convergence in the strategic policy direction at European, national and Institutional levels. The drivers for this convergence are not transparent. However, speculatively I would point to a possible link with economic ideology. In political terms both the European Community and Ireland seem to be positioning themselves to the right of centre, prioritising economic/business models over social/cultural policies. This approach could be identified with neo-liberalism. The notion of quality of service, which incorporated investment and development, seems to have drifted into quality of accountability which encompasses rationalisation measures and budgetary liability. Harvey (1997: 134) suggests: ‘One explanation for the change in perception is that the definition of quality has changed from an academically acceptable notion, based on excellence to an academically unacceptable, externally imposed definition based on value for money’. The Berlin Communiqué (2003) introduced the notion of ‘accountability’ in quality assurance, and the Irish Government in the social partnership agreement (Sustaining Progress 2003: 96) under the heading ‘Commitment to Modernisation’ (Public services) brings business axioms to the foreground such as, ‘results driven’, ‘value for money’, ‘accountability’. I question whether the emphasis of the present policy direction of the quality process is adopting an economic ideology where bottom-line cost indicators have priority and where a resource allocation model will be utilised in relation to targets achieved? If this is the case then what has happened to the value placed on the social and cultural domains of higher education?

With regard to the DIT, the main drivers seemed to have been: (1) a genuine concern for the quality of service a student experiences; (2) the pursuit of degree-awarding powers. The then first President of DIT states in the Quality Assurance Handbook that ‘Academic Quality Assurance in the Institute remains a journey of improvement, towards excellence’ (DIT 1997: xvii). This displayed an academically acceptable model of quality assurance which was not constrained by the control and accountability paradigm but rather favoured the enhancement model.

The EUA document analysis

Further insights into the EUA quality review of DIT are presented here. The statement below is an extract from the EUA’s Mission Statement, which suggests that the EUA does not intend to place itself in a control paradigm:

The EUA’s mission is to promote the development of a coherent system of European higher education and research. EUA aims to achieve this through active support and guidance to its members as autonomous institutions in enhancing the quality of their teaching, learning and research as well as their contributions to society.

The EUA was founded in 2001 after a merger between the Association of European Universities and the Confederation of European Union Rectors’ Conferences. It claims to be a representative organisation for both European universities and the national rectors’ conferences. The principal aims of the EUA are set out in Item 1 of their Articles of Association

These are interesting aims. The fact that the EUA considered it necessary to incorporate the first point – safeguard university values and autonomy – would leave any curious researcher to enquire as to whether there is an agenda, either covert or overt, that is seriously attempting to undermine these academic, taken-for-granted principles? In the EUA’s Annual Report 2003 the President, Eric Froment, claims that the Association is fulfilling its aims. Membership now stands at 692 universities (including the DIT). The Association has contributed to the development and shaping of European policy relating to the HE sector by way of new items added to both, the Bologna Declaration and the Graz Declaration, and that university autonomy is been ring-fenced by the continious lobbying of the Association and its member universities. In relation to quality assurance he states that ‘the introduction of a European dimension to quality assurance based on the principle that universities are responsible for the developing of internal quality cultures and that the next step at European level must involve all stakeholders in the process’ (Froment 2003: 3). He also claims that the Berlin Communiqué incorporated items on standardised European quality assurance mechanisms due to the EUA’s proactive engagement with Ministers (see note 8). The EUA’s Glasgow Declaration (2005) is a position paper that was presented to European Ministers of Education in Bergen on the 19/20 of May 2005. It would seem that the EUA has successfully established a strategic position at European level as an expert Association specialising in matters pertinent to the HE sector and quality assurance procedures. The EUA claims the Association has carried out ‘more than 110 institutional evaluations of universities in 35 countries’ (2004: 4).