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Agency for Science and Higher Education and QA System in Croatia
The quality assurance system in higher education and science is a relatively new concept in Croatia. It presupposes the existence of national laws and regulations as well as bodies responsible for carrying out procedures of external evaluation and professionals who conduct them, while promoting the importance of developing quality culture, observing European and international trends and improving the existing procedures. As a national agency for the implementation of external evaluation the Agency for Science and Higher Education (ASHE) faces the challenge of laying the foundation, creating and strengthening this process as well as building capacity of ASHE employees.
ASHE was founded in 2005 by the Decision of the Government of the Republic of Croatia according to Recommendation of the European Parliament and the Council on further European cooperation in quality assurance in higher education (2006/143/EC) and the European model of agencies for quality assurance in higher education, with the aim of conducting procedures of external evaluation and improving the quality of science and higher education in Croatia.
The Act on Quality Assurance in Science and Higher Education, which was adopted in 2009, enabled the Agency to achieve its full independence and bring its QA activities into compliance with the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (ESG). In accordance with this Act the Agency became the only national body responsible for carrying out external QA activities in higher education and science.
According to the Act on Quality Assurance in Science and Higher Education, ASHE performs part of the procedure of initial accreditation, procedures of re-accreditation, thematic evaluation of scientific organisations, higher education institutions and study programs as well as external audit of higher education institutions’ quality assurance systems.
Each of these procedures has its own characteristics and a pre-defined process of implementation. What they have in common is quality assurance and improvement of each evaluated institution, study program or activity, and the resulting advancement of the overall system of science and higher education.
• Initial accreditation
The initial accreditation is an evaluation procedure carried out for new HEIs and new study programs. This process is aimed at controlling the fulfilment of necessary accreditation criteria.
• Thematic evaluation
The thematic evaluation in higher education is carried out either according to the annual plan of the Agency, or following a request from the minister, a higher education institution, or a student council of a higher education institution. Upon completion of the procedure a panel of experts drafts a report indicating the level of compliance with the subject of evaluation.
• QA audit
The QA audit of a higher education institution is a systematic, periodic procedure which ascertains whether activities and results of the activities that make up the system of quality assurance of a higher education institution are efficient and in compliance with the national standards and ESG. The audit also focuses on evaluating contribution to continuous improvement of the quality culture and culture of education of a HEI.
The re-accreditation is an evaluation procedure carried out every five years at all public and private higher education institutions in Croatia. The purpose of this process is to assure quality and also to improve the quality of HEIs, their study programs and scientific organisations.
Following the re-accreditation procedure and with the previous opinion of the Accreditation Council (an expert body of the ASHE consisting of representatives of the system of higher education and science, business community and an associate member, a representative of organizations of civil society) the Agency makes an accreditation decision recommending the minister responsible for higher education to:
• issue accreditation for continuing HEI’s activity or part of activity;
• refuse to issue accreditation for HEI’s activity or part of activity;
• issue a letter of expectation with the deadline for resolving deficiencies up to three years.
The accreditation decision sent to the minister also contains a quality grade of a higher education institution or scientific organisation and includes recommendations for quality improvement. The final report with the quality grade and the final report summary are made public.
The first re-accreditation cycle
The first re-accreditation cycle began in 2010 and was completed in the first half of 2016. This is the first time a comprehensive evaluation of the entire system of higher education in Croatia (131 institutions) was carried out in accordance with a single methodology and criteria, in compliance with the ESG and examples of good international practice.
As we come to an end of the first five-year cycle of external evaluation, we can conclude that the initial goal has been achieved. Higher education institutions, other stakeholders and the general public recognise the importance of quality assurance, with many positive changes having taken place at the level of institutions, programs and the system as a whole. ASHE noted a positive attitude of the heads of institutions towards the evaluation procedures and the results and outcomes thereof. These changes encourage higher education institutions to improve their activities, and ASHE to continue its work.
Development of the new re-accreditation cycle
Although the ASHE analyses have shown that the first cycle of re-accreditation was successful and fit for purpose, during the implementation of the first cycle and based on the information gathered from stakeholders and their self-assessment, the need was identified to modify and improve the existing re-accreditation model. This primarily refers to the need for further alignment with the amended ESG, which were adopted by the ministers of the European Higher Education Area in 2015. Likewise, certain improvements refer to the changes in the number and ambiguousness of the quality criteria, an excessive emphasis on inputs and processes, and an insufficient emphasis on outputs, in the minimum quantitative data, which are underrepresented in the quality score. It should be taken into account that the current model of re-accreditation involved the combined institutional and program evaluation, which was justified by the demand for cost-effectiveness during the first cycle of external evaluation.
ASHE made a proposal for the new re-accreditation model that primarily includes the modified standards for the assessment of quality of universities and university components as well as polytechnics and colleges. In accordance with the new model, the goal of the next re-accreditation cycle is to encourage improvements in line with the recommendations for quality improvement resulting from the first cycle of the re-accreditation of higher education institutions. In this context, a higher education institution is viewed as a whole, and the quality of an institution includes the assessment of all its activities. The modified re-accreditation model makes it possible to verify key, generally accepted standards and quality score based on the report of the expert panel that has been fully aligned with the ESG.
ASHE’s scope of work also combines activities related to:
• Applying and meeting the conditions for enrollment into higher education institutions (the Central Applications Office—CAO);
• Professional recognition of foreign higher education qualifications and providing information on the national and foreign education systems (National ENIC/NARIC Office);
• ASHE provides professional and administrative support to the National Council for Science, Higher Education and Technological Development, the Council of Polytechnics and Colleges, 23 Scientific Field Committees for all scientific fields and areas in Croatia (the Office for Scientific Field Committees), seven Scientific Area Councils and seven Field Committees for Appointment to Scientific-Teaching and Teaching Grades at Polytechnics and Colleges.
ASHE is actively working on the inclusion into the international system of quality assurance in higher education and science, already being its recognised and active member. Among other organisations, ASHE is a full member of the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA), a European umbrella quality assurance association, and is listed in the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education (EQAR). Consequently, ASHE has the right to conduct quality assurance procedures not only in Croatia, but in the entire European Higher Education Area (EHEA). It is also a member of the International Network for Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education (INQAAHE), a world-wide association of nearly 300 organisations active in quality assurance in higher education, and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), an association of 3,000 degree-granting colleges and universities that recognizes 60 institutional and program accrediting organizations.
Croatian higher education system
Higher education institutions in Croatia are universities (and their constituents—faculties and academies of arts), polytechnics and colleges. They can be public or private. All higher education institutions are under the supervision of the Ministry of Science and Education.
Universities are institutions that organise and implement university studies in at least two scientific and/or art areas, in several fields, including interdisciplinary studies. Universities can also organise professional studies. University constituents are faculties, art academies and departments. University studies are performed at three levels: a bachelor level (typically takes up three years and exceptionally four years), a master level (typically takes up two years and exceptionally one year) and a PhD study.
Polytechnics and schools of professional higher education are institutions that organise and implement professional studies at two levels (a professional bachelor level and a professional specialist level). They cannot organise university studies or PhD studies. Polytechnics deliver at least three different studies in at least three fields.
“For more than a decade the Agency for Science and Higher Education (ASHE) has actively contributed to the promotion of higher education and science in Croatia through its activities.
The work of ASHE has been recognized by higher education institutions, scientific organisations, a wider academic community, and students, which is especially important to us.
Our work has also been acknowledged by the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA), and after the demanding procedure of international accreditation which took place last year the ASHE membership in ENQA has been renewed. Aslo, following a decision of the Register Committee that decides upon applications for inclusion on the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education (EQAR) or renewal of registration, ASHE’s membership in the Register been renewed. The expert panel reviewing ASHE especially commended the quality and commitment of our staff as well as their knowledge of national and international quality assurance practices.
The panel also stressed the collaboration of ASHE with different stakeholders and involvement of international experts into different procedures.
The membership in ENQA and EQAR is a proof of ASHE’s work being recognised as well as the proof of credibility of qualifications issued by Croatian higher education institutions.”
Professor Jasmina Havranek, PhD