Quality assurance and accreditation in Europe

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Quality assurance can serve several purposes, including:

  • improvement and enhancement of quality;
  • safeguarding national academic standards;
  • recognition of programmes and/or institutions;
  • accountability (in return for autonomy);
  • the provision of independently-verified information about programmes and/or institutions;

European models of quality assurance can include evaluations and accreditation at subject, programme and institutional levels and a combinations of these. European quality assurance can however best be characterised in the light of the Bologna Process. One of the aims of this process is European co-operation with a view to developing comparable criteria and methodologies. In 2005, this led to the adoption by the European Ministers of Education the "Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area" (European Standards and Guidelines).

European Standards and Guidelines

The following fundamental principles permeate the European Standards and Guidelines:

  • the interests of students as well as employers and the society more generally in good quality higher education;
  • the central importance of institutional autonomy, tempered by a recognition that this brings with it heavy responsibilities;
  • the need for external quality assurance to be fit for its purpose and to place only an appropriate and necessary burden on institutions for the achievement of its objectives.

The European Standards and Guidelines lay down the European standards and guidelines for

  • internal quality assurance within higher education institutions
  • external quality assurance of higher education
  • external quality assurance agencies
  • a peer review system for quality assurance agencies

All European countries have committed themselves to introducing the proposed model of quality assurance.

Additionally, the European Ministers have agreed to set up a European register of quality assurance agencies (EQAR). Quality assurance agencies are admitted to the register after a satisfactory peer review of the agency concerned. This peer review should be in line with the European Standards and Guidelines.


Accreditation procedures have become an important method for external quality assurance in Europe. Accreditation is increasingly defined as every formalised decision by an appropriately recognised authority as to whether an institution of higher education or a programme conforms to certain standards. The European Consortium for Accreditation defines accreditation as “a formal and independent decision, indicating that an institution of higher education and/or programmes meet certain predefined standards.” This definition also covers some quality assessments that are described as “accreditation-like procedures”.

Accreditation is achieved through a multi-step process:

  • self-evaluation or documentation submitted by the unit undergoing accreditation;
  • external assessment by independent experts; and,
  • the accreditation decision.

The accreditation decision is based on the external assessment. The accreditation decision itself is authoritative in nature and results in a “yes” (with or without conditions) or “no” judgment with a limited validity.

Quality assurance networks in Europe

European Association for Quality Assurance in higher education (ENQA)

Members of ENQA are quality assurance agencies from countries party to the Bologna process. The European Network for Quality Assurance in Higher Education was established in 2000 to promote European co-operation in the field of quality assurance. In 2004 the Network was transformed into an Association.

ENQA is considered the main policy-making body of the European quality assurance community. It is also in this capacity that ENQA participates in the Bologna Process.

European Consortium for Accreditation in higher education (ECA)

ECA is a focused (project-based) cooperation of fifteen accreditation organisations from ten European countries. ECA was established in 2003 with the aim to achieve the mutual recognition of accreditation decisions among the participants. At the end of 2007 the first mutual recognition agreements were signed. These agreements are intended

  • to contribute to the recognition of qualifications and thus the mobility of students and graduates in Europe
ECA members cooperate with authorities responsible for the recogntion of foreign qualifications in order to achieve automatic recognition of qualifications from accredited programmes and institutions
  • to facilitate cross-border accreditation and recognition of joint programmes (e.g. Erasmus Mundus programmes)
Institutions would only need to apply for accreditation in one of the ECA member countries instead of obtaining accreditation in each country separately.