Transformation of European University Education Systems

by Professor Jiøí Witzany
Faculty of Civil Engineering, CTU Prague, (Czech Republic)
AECEF President

The higher education institutions of today are going through a continuous process of transformation to fit new conditions. During the past decades significant social, economic and political changes occurred to which these institutions have to adapt.

Contrary to the educational institutions of the past specialising mostly in educating intellectual and technical elites, today’s universities are becoming institutions for “mass” training of specialists with university qualifications.

In many European countries the number of students has gone up by 50 to 80 % during the last two decades. In the OECD countries, the current number of students amounts to about ...

The absolute majority of students prepare for the execution of jobs requiring university qualification, not for research careers. It is obvious that, due to their interests, motivations and needs, the much more heterogeneous student population of today requires a corresponding system of education in which, to a certain extent, it is necessary to distinguish between the training of young people aimed at practical implementation in certain jobs from the preparation of young research workers that guarantees the development of a particular branch. In this respect the multilevel system of the Anglo-Saxon bachelor’s and master’s study, and structured doctoral study programmes seem efficient. The lifelong postgraduate and extension study programmes as well are of importance representing a significant process of innovation and transfer of knowledge and new information to university educated experts.

The intensive globalisation process plays a prominent role in organising the teaching and structuring the studies. More than ever before is it necessary to take into account that universities can no longer be developed and organised on the national principle, but only in a wider, international context. This, however, does not exclude the practice of following and respecting certain national features, cultural and economic specificities of the given country. A contrary approach may gradually lead to the isolation of the university, to lower numbers of foreign students and visiting professors who, as it is, represent the most efficient form of transfer of knowledge and methods of university education. It is, above all, the present-day system of European universities with a one-level (ing, dipl. ing.) and multilevel (bachelor, master) study systems that will - sooner or later - have to undergo a mutual transformation into more compatible systems that do not create obstacles to the “movement” of students among different universities.

Among important questions to solve there is the organisation of teaching, study and examinations, their co-ordination in contents and time. A number of branches and study specialisations often represent a mere sum of individual theoretic and special disciplines without direct links and conditionality. The responsibility for teaching and its efficiency and standards are frequently limited to individual disciplines and courses, whereas the overall responsibility for the study branch is insufficient. Not always is there adequate leadership, students’ information and feedback. The growing length and frequent interruptions of study represent a serious problem. This fact has doubtless many causes from insufficient motivation for timely termination of study, putting off the “entrance” to life to economic reasons. We may, however, rightly assume that among the main causes of a relatively high average length of the study at European universities (15 to 20 semesters) there is also the fact that the study is free of charge.

The growing scope of activities of universities and a number of questions related to the management of university operation, provision of sufficient resources to run them, the management of large universities and faculties with several thousand students and hundreds or thousands of employees require professional university management, a transition from frequently too academic management mechanisms based on the principle of comradely spirit.

Among priority questions to be solved by numerous universities in the nearest future there is evaluation of the quality of study. In this respect we have to keep in mind that this is not a single, but a continuous process opening up a wide internal, as well as external dialogue about education and potential means leading to ensuring its high quality. The question is not only to ensure competitiveness, but to render the accounts for using public and other resources provided to universities for their activities. Among the most frequent forms and means of evaluating the quality of university education there is internal assessment, such as students’ assessment of teaching and teachers, assessment made by boards appointed for this purpose, final reports on university activities, assessment made by external specialists (peer review) and assessment carried out by independent evaluation agencies.

Granting accreditation based on objective evaluation methods for a fixed time is a significant accent supporting the quality of university and its continuous assessment.

It is obvious that each of the above mentioned evaluation methods has its strong and weak points. It is therefore appropriate to include them all in the evaluation process, each of them being in a certain way irreplaceable.

The harmony between the expected course, contents and targets of study and its real course and achieved outcomes may be verified namely through students’ assessment. The results of this type of evaluation have as a rule immediate impacts.

The relevance and benefits of the contents of study and the time necessary for the preparation of students in a particular branch and specialisation may be evaluated namely by external experts from practice and by institutions. The objectivity of their point of view, however, requires not only good knowledge of practice and its needs, but also good knowledge of university life, the problems of education and a capability of a wider, generally valid understanding of university education effect. Evaluation by external specialists is convenient namely for setting up a mid-term concept of university development.

Evaluations carried out by independent, e.g. national evaluation agencies, if they are based on objective and generally acceptable criteria, may provide important information for comparing the level of educational quality ensurance and for comparing the efficiency of educational systems of individual universities.

A common starting point and precondition for objective evaluation of the quality of education must be based on a consensus on “What the quality of study is” and what objective criteria to use for its evaluation and verification. Without clearing up these fundamental questions the very best evaluation may miss the mark. Such failure may be avoided by establishing a professional institution dealing with the evaluation of the quality of university study at the level of each university or within university unions, accreditation commissions or corresponding ministries. The resources spent on supporting this activity will doubtless be returned in the form of high efficiency of university educational programmes and the quality of their graduates.

In conclusion, it is necessary to stress that the results of quality evaluation must serve, above all, as an important information source for decision making and for taking measures on the part of university and faculty management, not as a pretext for immediate restrictive measures on the part of the university founders. High demands and complexity of the process of evaluating the quality of education at universities require to make the university management, that bears responsibility for the quality of education, competent for taking corresponding decisions.

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