Colin Tück has been the director of the European Quality Assurance Register (EQAR) since its creation in 2008. He has been actively involved in the Bologna Process for over a decade, specifically when it comes to quality assurance developments and transparency of quality assurance systems.
To start off, can you explain in three sentences what EQAR is (for our readers who do not know)?
Colin Tück (CT): The European Quality Assurance Register (EQAR) is the European Higher Education Area's (EHEA) official register of those quality assurance agencies that have demonstrated their compliance with the agreed European Standards and Guidelines (ESG).
EQAR's aim is to enhance transparency through information on reliable agencies and, as a result, to promote trust and facilitate recognition.
The Register currently features 46 quality assurance agencies from 23 EHEA countries, and these agencies are reviewed against the ESG every 5 years. In the meantime, they report regularly on their activities and on changes to the way in which they work.
Are there EQAR members in European neighborhood countries that are eligible under the HERE action (Southern Med, Western Balkans, Eastern Partnership and Central Asia)? Have you seen an increasing interest for countries from these regions to join? (for Bologna countries, this would be clear, but it would be interesting to know about countries outside of the EHEA).
CT: It is important to distinguish between membership, which is for EHEA stakeholder organisations and governments, and registration, which is for quality assurance agencies.
Membership is open only to EHEA governments since EQAR was created by the Bologna Process and that this is our primary remit. We currently have 41 of the 48 EHEA countries on board. Of the countries in the HERE action (including Serbia, which used to be a country with a HERE team), 12 are in the EHEA and 9 of them are governmental members of EQAR.
Quality assurance agencies, on the other hand, can apply for registration, irrespective of where they are from. Among the HERE countries, we currently have registered agencies in Armenia, Kazakhstan and Russia. In addition, we have had some interest and talks with agencies from more or less all over the world, but only two non-European agencies have ever applied but did not achieve registration. At present, we see that maybe one agency from a non-EHEA HERE country is considering more concrete steps in that direction.
But one point is important: agencies from outside Europe will have to demonstrate compliance with the ESG, just as European agencies do. Some principles of the ESG might be a challenge, e.g. publication of all reports or participation of students in reviews, as these are deeply rooted in European practices.
What is DEQAR? What are the main goals and expectations?
CT: EQAR used to provide a list of trustworthy agencies, with basic information on their work. But understandably, most people are interested in the quality of a higher education institution or study programme, rather than information on an agency as such.
But to read actual reports and decisions on higher education institutions or programmes you had to visit the agencies' own websites. This is not an easy task with 46 agencies: you had to find out which agency might have reported on the institution or programme you are interested in (in many countries several agencies carry out evaluation or accreditation) and then had to navigate differently structured websites in different languages. In a survey we did, a clear majority of respondents told us that they found reports only “somewhat accessible”.
Especially now that European ministers have set out to realise automatic recognition of qualifications, different users – and not only experts – will need a simple way to see that a higher education institution or programme was quality assured in line with the ESG.
With DEQAR we try to create one pan-European database of quality assurance reports and decisions to make them more easily accessible and understandable. Our aim is to create a one-stop shop for all external quality assurance in line with the ESG, carried out by the EQAR-registered agencies.
How was it developed and how does it work? Who do you expect the users to be?
CT: The general idea has been around for a while, if not ever since EQAR existed. With our self-evaluation in 2015/16 the idea became more concrete; we carried out surveys of both registered agencies and potential users. These included leadership, academics, recognition and other officers in higher education institutions, students and potential students, recognition information centres, employers, national ministries and their agencies, as well as other quality assurance agencies.
Based on the insights we gained from the surveys, we prepared a detailed operational model. We presented and discussed that model with our members, which was the basis for decisions made by EQAR members in 2017 to secure the long-term funding. We were able to win an Erasmus+ grant for the initial setup, but it was always absolutely clear that we wouldn't even start if the long-term funding wasn't secured.
EQAR is a small organisation and so we always look for the most efficient solution. Also, we were keen to address some concerns about duplication of data and being able to sustain a sophisticated data collection in the long term. That's why we went for a “lean approach”: we agreed to only collect the information that users really need and that is not already available somewhere else. We decided to skip any “nice-to-haves” for which there was no clear demand or need.
To give an example: we are using basic institutional data, such as name, website and location, from ETER (European Tertiary Education Register) and OrgReg (Register of Public Sector Organisations), who are already doing a fantastic job keeping an inventory of all higher education institutions in the EU, EEA, EFTA and candidate countries. We didn't have to re-invent the wheel and could focus on collecting quality assurance information.
Why will DEQAR be interesting for HERE, for example, who come from ministries, universities, QA agencies and student associations in Partner countries?
CT: In general, DEQAR is one single gateway to many reports – we already have 9 737 reports on 1 624 higher education institutions in 56 countries. For 13 EHEA countries, DEQAR covers all or most higher education institutions. We expect that DEQAR will grow to 20 000 reports by the end of 2019. I think this is of interest to HERE from both the EHEA and outside the EHEA, as also the latter certainly have frequent contact or cooperation with EHEA partners.
Recognition officers or credential evaluators in higher education institutions and national information centres are a key target group. They can use DEQAR to see if the institution that awarded a qualification was externally quality assured in line with the ESG.
Students can use DEQAR to get information on the quality of a university or programme they are considering for their studies. Academics and leaders in higher education institutions can benchmark themselves against others or inform themselves about the standing of potential partners. And researchers can use DEQAR as a basis for Europe-wide studies, tapping into thousands of quality assurance reports.
For the agencies, institutions and countries that appear in DEQAR, it generally brings them greater international exposure of their work.
Quality assurance systems can be complex and technical. Has DEQAR been designed to be user-friendly and facilitate transparency?
CT: As said, the European automatic recognition agenda played into launching DEQAR. To make this a reality, we need to do our best to make quality assurance more easily understandable. So yes, helping users navigate the complexity is an important element.
Firstly, we had that in mind when designing the data model. While all quality assurance reports can be downloaded in full, the essential information – date, status, decision, validity – is described in a standardised format and vocabulary. We tried to balance simplicity and sufficient room for nuance, so that the diversity of European quality assurance systems can be adequately described but remains easily understandable. The key characteristics are also illustrated by icons.
Secondly, we provide a country profile for each EHEA country, which describes their quality assurance system concisely. These are embedded within DEQAR and contextualise the information on QA reports. In practice that helps you understand whether the accreditation, evaluation or audit that you see is indeed the one that is required by national law.
In the context of digitally issued qualifications, e.g. under the new Europass, we will look at making all these descriptions more systematic so that they would be machine-readable and could potentially be processed automatically.
Which HERE (Partner) countries are currently featured in DEQAR?
CT: For the EHEA HERE countries, you can find quality assurance reports for institutions in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Montenegro, Russia and Ukraine in DEQAR. You can also find reports for Serbia. Montenegro recently contracted an EQAR-registered agency to evaluate all higher education institutions in the country, and thus have a comprehensive coverage of the system.
What have the main challenges been in building this database?
CT: I think many of the main challenges have already been touched upon: sustainability, representing the diversity of EHEA quality assurance systems – which also operate at different levels, by the way – , finding the right balance between simplification and detail, being user-friendly for experts and non-experts alike.
But the biggest challenge is of course to populate the database with as many reports as possible. It is voluntary for EQAR-registered agencies to upload their reports, and we are glad that almost all agencies are interested.
In designing the system we made sure to have a low entry bar. We provide three ways of uploading reports: small agencies with few reports can enter them one-by-one, using a web interface. Larger agencies can upload spreadsheets with dozens or hundreds of reports, using data exported from their own systems. And finally, agencies can use an Application Programming Interface (API) to keep DEQAR in sync with their own data automatically and transparently.
But many agencies still need time to prepare their backlog of reports for upload to DEQAR, or to adjust their own systems for an automatic link using our API. The EU Erasmus+ grant certainly helped, as agencies can receive some financial compensation for their efforts. And we continue working with the registered agencies to provide assistance and gather as many reports as possible in DEQAR.
EUA will be holding a webinar on DEQAR on June 27, 2019. More information can be found here: https://www.eua.eu/events/99-eua-webinar.html