IN TIMES OF UNCERTAINTY, FULL OF SOCIAL, POLITICAL AND ECONOMIC CHALLENGES, MAINTAINING EXCELLENCE IS OF UTMOST IMPORTANCE. CONSEQUENTLY, THE TOPIC OPENS A DEBATE ABOUT THE DIFFERENT CONCEPTS OF QUALITY AND THE CREATION OF COMMON IDEALS OF HIGHER EDUCATION AND RESEARCH, INCORPORATING THEM IN QUALITY SYSTEMS. THESE WERE THE MAIN TOPICS DISCUSSED AT THE CONFERENCE ON QUALITY IN HIGHER EDUCATION ORGANIZED BY THE SLOVENIAN QUALITY ASSURANCE AGENCY FOR HIGHER EDUCATION AND THE SLOVENIAN ACADEMY OF SCIENCES AND ARTS.
The event took place on 7 May 2019 at the Academy of Sciences and Arts (SASA) in Ljubljana and was attended by many key stakeholders in higher education. In their introductory speeches, the Minister of Education, Science and Sport dr. Jernej Pikalo and the President of SASA dr. Tadej Bajd pointed out the importance of the discussion about maintaining excellence for the development of higher education and the society as a whole. The Minister highlighted the principles of meritocracy, inclusion of the universities in broader environment and development of human capital as important parts of a quality assurance system.
The role of SQAA in maintaining excellence
The Director of SQAA dr. Franci Demšar emphasized the SQAA’s activities to move the focus from complying with the minimum standards towards exploring and recognizing the outstanding and excellent categories in higher education and also to open up the debate on where to look for and how to define the ideals in higher education. The results of the systemic analysis of SQAA’s expert reports combined with the examples of good practice confirm that the excellence has already been achieved in the key areas such as provision of education and research results. Within the context of assessing and recognizing excellence, the common agreement upon its ideals must be achieved.
The universities and their excellence in unstable times
Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, in his address, drew attention to the fact that maintaining excellence in today’s unstable times is a particular challenge. The internal uncertainties that universities face are linked to finance, investment, infrastructure, and income. However, where there are challenges, there are also significant opportunities, and universities are well trained in their management. The academics and universities are determined to remain faithful to their principles, strive for the widest possible international activity, cooperation with the external environment and, above all, efforts to develop new ideas and discoveries for the benefit of society. There exists an implicit contract between society and universities – the society gives the universities privileges because it trusts them that the enjoyment of these freedoms will bring social benefits. “However, the situation is never the same, but universities have survived worse times and still remain the leading institutions in the world. I think it will be the same in the future,” he concludes.
In this context, the former Rector of the University of Ljubljana, dr. Ivan Svetlik stresses that excellent universities must cooperate with the economic sector. “The cooperation of universities with the working environment, which initially appeared heretical and inconsistent with the traditional mission of universities, is gradually becoming their strength. Thus, among the indicators of excellence one can find not only the number of publications in scientific journals, the number of quotations and the like, but also the employability of graduates, the number and value of projects in cooperation with economic sector, as well as publications and citation in co-authorship with experts from the working environment,” he points out.
Accreditation procedures and quality assurance
Dr. Alojz Kralj, the former Rector of the University of Ljubljana, and dr. Ivan Leban, the former Vice-Rector of the University of Ljubljana, underline the following future tasks in the field of quality assurance and enhancement in higher education: more active and effective cooperation between higher education institutions and the economy sector, the merger of individual higher education institutions, thus surpassing study programme duplication and fragmentation to become more competitive in acquiring EU research funds, enhancing academic mobility and the internationalization of universities.
Dr. Janko Dernovšek from the Faculty of Electrical Engineering, University of Ljubljana, points out that despite the need for quality assurance systems in higher education this area should not be excessively regulated. Quality systems are needed to provide stable and stimulating environment leading towards excellence, but there are other issues such as ethics in personal and societal level, allocation of institutional resources, core content policies and the involvement of students and teachers in the processes.
Enrollment conditions and quality of graduates
Dr. Blaž Zmazek, dr. Darko Zupanc and dr. Robert Zorec from the State Commission for the General Matura of the Republic of Slovenia argue that the quality of study is based on the excellence of teachers and on the above-average qualified and motivated students. In order to ensure quality in higher education, it is necessary to seriously address the very large gap between the exceptionally high transition to higher levels of education and the poor general knowledge of students enrolling in the tertiary education. In order to ensure the quality of graduates, it is essential to tighten enrolment requirements for all study programs.
The issue of the quality of graduates and enrolment conditions was also addressed by the participants of the round table who came to similar conclusions. According to dr. Borysiewicz, decision makers do not want to limit entry to tertiary education, so employers are those who assess the quality of graduates, and the level of education does not yet presuppose employability. Also dr. Demšar affirmed that the entry-exit situation is a problem in tertiary education, and therefore the SQAA will tackle this issue, cooperating with the legislator and performing the survey on the employability of graduates. Dr. Svetlik pointed out that the evaluation of programmes and the adjusting enrolment quotas on the basis of employability indicators only can be problematic due to unpredictable economic developments and long-term fluctuations in demand.
“Education is what remains when you forget everything you learned.”
Dr. Leban opened the issue of common academic values such as human rights, solidarity, and integration. According to him, these are also part of excellence. Dr. Borysiewicz agreed and added that they must be considered with care. The hierarchy and the importance of values is a very complex issue, and any exclusion is not welcome. In this context of the university, it is important to educate students from the point of view of openness to diversity, debate and defending their own positions. “Education is what remains, after you forget everything you learned.” To the question of achieving a balance between a high teacher workload and a low input of students he answered that it is important, in particular, that they both must have the possibility to focus themselves on their primary tasks – teachers on teaching and research, and students on studying.