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Determining the quality of higher education

by Florent Bick last modified 2010-11-08 11:02


Catholic University of Mons (FUCaM)

Head of the Sociological Action And Meaning Research Group (GRESaS)

Determining the quality of higher education

The founding fathers of the Bologna process aimed to make European universities attractive for students worldwide and ease the circulation of staff and students with a view to developing scientific excellence. Some aspects of this initiative were achieved more quickly and deeply than the most optimistic of initiators had initially expected. The bachelor, master and doctorate degree structure or LMD has become a landmark for the educational systems of all continents. There has been so much enthusiasm about the establishment of the European space for higher education that limits had to be put for the whole world not to rush into it indistinctly. Other aspects such as the identification of quality criteria for higher education and how they will be met are have not been achieved yet.

However, the establishment of a European, even international space for higher education in which learners would be free to circulate cannot be realised unless identical higher education quality criteria are identified and based on solid, undisputable assessment techniques. One of the major challenges of the internationalisation of higher education is first to reach agreement among all parties on what quality is and how it should be measured. It was clearly intended to make national systems comparable and compatible but the means towards this end were not identified at all.

I argue in this paper that today’s difficulties are partly explained by the different timing of operational and symbolic changes across the countries that adopted LMD. Under the pressure of various international organisations – OECD, European Union – universities have promoted competition, networking and the ranking of institutions and staff members. Symbolic changes have also come with these operational transformations. Belgium is a case in point. University policies were conducted on a single basis until 1968. However how the two linguistic communities adhered to the Bologna process is totally opposed. In collaboration with the Netherlands, Flanders set up an independent agency for quality evaluation. In case of failure, a number of sanctions are provided for. In French-speaking Belgium, the quality agency is run by civil servants and its evaluations are designed to disseminate good practice and provide advice to institutions. There are neither rankings nor sanctions.

The models of the two linguistic communities illustrate that the Bologna reform is faced with two different representations. In French-speaking Belgium, universities are under state protection. In this welfare state-derived version, it is taken for granted that all university courses are of satisfactory quality and staff members and teams are expected to take risks all the more so as they are correctly protected. In the Fleming community, the model is similar to that promoted by Germany, Austria and the United Kingdom. Limits and protections are suppressed. Its promoters believe that spurring competition between institutions, laboratories and staff members will bring the best results.

The definition of quality and its instruments is linked to these two versions. The arguments behind the version privileged in French-speaking Belgium are that the initiatives of a university are measured by its effects on its environment, the services it provides to the economy and the civil society, its contribution to local development while the Fleming version tends to privilege absolute hierarchies and quality is measured in terms of scientific prizes or the number of publications in journals.

Education et sociétés
Numéro 21
Former des élites dans un monde incertain
Coordonné par Yves Dutercq
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Association internationale des sociologues de langue françaiseComité de recherche n °7 Éducation, Formation, Socialisation
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