Higher Education and Research

CDESR (2009) 8 final
Orig. Eng.
Strasbourg, 12 March 2009

Steering Committee for Higher Education and Research
8th plenary session
Strasbourg, 5 - 6 March 2009


Statement by the Steering Committee for Higher Education and Research (CDESR)
Adopted by the CDESR on 5 March 2009

Directorate General IV: Education, Culture and Heritage, Youth and Sport
(Directorate of Education and Languages/Higher Education and Research Division)

Distribution: CDESR delegations and observers
Document available on http://www.coe.int/t/dg4/education/restricted/

Statement by the Steering Committee for Higher Education and Research (CDESR)

1. Quality assurance is a key policy area in the European Higher Education Area. To ensure a common understanding of quality assurance throughout the European Higher Education Area, to develop good practice and to make European practice in this area transparent, Ministers of the Bologna Process have adopted Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (Bergen 2005)1. In 2008, the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education2 was established. The EQAR is open, on application, to all quality assurance agencies complying with the Standards and Guidelines regardless of their geographical location.

2. Quality assurance aims at ensuring the continuous improvement of the quality of higher education as well as at ascertaining whether a given higher education institution or programme meets a defined quality standard without weighting it and without comparing it to any other institution or programme.

3. As opposed to the objective of enhancement inherent in quality assurance, rankings aim to show the relative strengths of higher education institutions and programmes. Some rankings are prominent in the public view like the ones established by the Times Higher Education Supplement or Shanghai Jiao Tong University. The criteria and indicators used for those comparative exercises vary, but they tend to put great importance on the institution’s research strength in a global setting. Even if they explicitly set out to do so, they are often perceived as providing information on the institution’s overall performance including those areas that are outside research. Moreover, these are mostly individual, private initiatives undertaken in the absence of a framework of reference as the one that exists for quality assurance, i.e. the European Standards and Guidelines for quality assurance. Rankings and classifications, therefore, raise some fundamental issues.

4. The issue that has given rise to most debate is the extent to which the criteria used for ranking or classification convey the overall purposes of higher education. For the Council of Europe this lack of scope inherent in some rankings is a concern. Recommendation Rec (2007) 6 by the Committee of Ministers to member states on the public responsibility for higher education and research, prepared by the CDESR, points to four main purposes of higher education:

    · preparation for sustainable employment;
    · preparation for life as active citizens in democratic societies;
    · personal development;
    · the development and maintenance, through teaching, learning and research, of a broad, advanced knowledge base.

5. These are the overall purposes of higher education and research. In the EHEA characterised by the diversity and the autonomy of its institutions, each institution may fulfil one or more of a wide range of missions and it may do so at varying levels and degrees.

6. Whatever their stated missions, higher education institutions should aim to carry them out with excellence, and public authorities and other stakeholders should encourage higher education institutions to develop and maintain excellence in their chosen missions. The criteria and indicators used for any type of evaluation must match the missions that the institution has defined for itself. In other words, the evaluation must fit the purpose of that institution.

7. So, while criteria and indicators must both cover the whole scope of higher education as laid down in the Recommendation cited above and in their application fit the purpose of the individual institution, they must also be such that they are not a straightjacket for the institution. Even the best constructed system is of little use, and can potentially be harmful, if it encourages institutions to chase after rankings rather than focus on their core mission.

8. Moreover, in the case of rankings differences are not necessarily meaningful. While ranking and classification systems may give an appearance of an order of magnitude, the difference between institutions ranked as, say, number 25 and 40 on a given index is unlikely to be significant or indeed stable. Indeed, the missions of institutions can evolve frequently. Any ranking or classification system needs to be able to accommodate such changes if it is to be meaningful.

9. The CDESR – composed of academic and governmental representatives of the 49 States party to the European Cultural Convention - remains committed to the continued enhancement of the quality of higher education in Europe, but given the fundamental concerns about ranking and classification systems, questions whether they have a role to play in quality assurance. In the Committee’s view, it is more important that higher education institutions continue to develop the quality of their activities and provide clear information about their missions. Public authorities should continue to provide for external quality assurance in accordance with the European Standards and Guidelines and should, in accordance with Recommendation Rec (2007) 6, seek to ensure that the higher education system for which they are responsible covers the whole range of missions of higher education.

10. Ranking or classification exercises risk thwarting the efforts to develop a diversified higher education system in Europe or being detrimental to the implementation of Bologna Process reforms. It is with regret that the CDESR draws attention to the fact that the ranking and classification exercises developed so far do not seem to meet the essential requirements set out in this statement.

11. The CDESR recommends that the Communiqué from the 2009 Ministerial meeting of the Bologna Process include a statement on the importance of further developing policies that take due account of the variety of missions of higher education. The key to this is the development of adequate and reliable transparency tools. To that end, classification of higher education institutions should be multi-dimensional, designed in a way that helps institutions develop profiles that emphasize one or more of the main missions of higher education and that recognize the value of all these different missions. Moreover, the development of these transparency tools requires the full involvement of stakeholders.

1 http://www.bologna-bergen2005.no/EN/BASIC/050520_European_Quality_Assurance_Standards.pdf

2 http://www.eqar.eu/index.php?id=32