Qualification Frameworks and Field-specific Approaches to Quality Assurance: Initiatives in Engineering and Technical Education

Qualification Frameworks and Field-specific Approaches to Quality Assurance: Initiatives in Engineering and Technical Education

Giuliano Augusti (European Network for Accreditation of Engineering Education, Italy) and Sebastião Feyo de Azevedo (Universidade do Porto, Portugal)
DOI: 10.4018/ijqaete.2011010104

Abstract

“General” and “field-specific” Quality Assurance procedures, although sharing many “technical” instruments (self evaluation reports, peer reviews, benchmarks vs. reference points, etc.), have different directions. The motivations behind “field-specific” initiatives are critically presented in this paper. They are strictly correlated with Qualification Frameworks that, while preserving the autonomy of higher education institutions in defining their teaching offers, define common and transparent employability objectives for the benefit of students, graduates and all other stakeholders. However, “while learning outcomes have been generically defined for the degree structure”, it is now necessary “to further develop descriptors for subject specific knowledge, skills and competences. ... leaving still plenty of freedom for programme diversity.” (Bologna Process, 2009a). Qualification Frameworks and field-specific Quality Assurance lead naturally to “pre-professional accreditation” that can be given an international value by “European Quality Labels”.
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Introduction

On 11-12th of March 2010 the Ministers responsible for higher education (HE) of the 47 countries signatory of the “Bologna Process” agreements met in Budapest and Vienna to formally launch the European Higher Education Area (EHEA).This date can be seen as the first milestone of the first decade, of a deep reform of the European systems of higher education, that aims at fostering mobility and cooperation within Europe and creating more transparent and attractive conditions for third countries to cooperate with European Universities, without intending to establish any “uniformity” of the varied picture of European HE.

The reform of the structure is there. The reform of the substance, that of developing readable curricula in a lifelong learning context and of developing methods that make use of modern tools and meet the expectations and motivations of young people, is about to start. To a large extent it can be said that the main goal of this second decade of the Bologna reform is about bringing “Bologna” into practice.

It should be understood that promoting mobility and co-operation, the essential objectives presiding to the construction of the EHEA, requires TRUST and that for such trust to grow it is necessary to build transparent and readable academic curricula and professional qualifications. This is achieved through transparent Qualifications Frameworks (QF) and Quality Assurance procedures (QA), recognised and accepted by all partners and stakeholders.

This paper is about two such requirements, qualifications frameworks and quality assurance guidelines and methods, issues that are intrinsically connected between themselves and to the core building block concept of Learning Outcomes (LO).

Indeed, Qualifications Frameworks based on Learning Outcomes represent a cornerstone of the reforms proposed within the Bologna Process - they play a major role in basically all main structural areas of the reform: (i) in developing degree systems and study programmes at higher education institutions; (ii) in the recognition of qualifications, by all stakeholders; and (iii) as a pre-requirement, in the implementation of quality assurance (QA) systems.

Concerning the last of the structural areas mentioned, QA systems should include clear and measurable objectives and standards: therefore, there cannot be any quality assurance without a qualifications framework. The understanding by all stakeholders of academic degrees and related specific knowledge, competences and skills of their graduates is essential for both internal and external evaluation and for recognition. This means, and the paper deals with issues in developing and implementing field-specific strategies and methodologies for QA that must be supported by related sectoral descriptors of qualifications.

What is “Accreditation”?

A very recent well-researched Ph.D. Thesis (Patil, 2010) states:

“The literature search shows that accreditation is an increasingly commonly accepted mechanism of quality assurance in higher and engineering education”.

In this context the word “accreditation” is definitely related to a field-specific approach in Quality Assurance of higher education, in which the aims and contents of the educational programmes are specified, as opposed to a “general” QA approach in which essentially the quality of the teaching/learning process is assessed. Before going further, the meaning of the word “accreditation” must be accurately qualified.

As defined in the EUR-ACE Framework Standards (ENAEE, 2008a) and in their “Commentary” (ENAEE, 2008b):

“Accreditation of an engineering educational programme is the primary result of a process used to ensure the suitability of that programme as the entry route to the engineering profession.”

This definition has accepted in this paper. It was written for engineering, but it may apply to different professions (the word “engineering” could be replaced by the corresponding one for another profession). It combines assurance of “academic quality” with professional relevance. Therefore, it can neither be simply qualified as “academic accreditation”, nor, on the other hand, as “professional accreditation”, because “academic education” may be not sufficient to be accredited for a profession: e.g., in several countries to be qualified as “engineer” a graduate of an accredited programme must fulfil further (more or less formalized) “professional training” requirements, fixed by professional, not academic, organizations. Hence, in order to avoid confusions, “accreditation”, defined in this way, can be referred to as “pre-professional accreditation”.1

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