22 SES 01 B, Paper Session
The ever-growing attention devoted to the internationalisation and quality assurance in higher education also increased the need to examine their interdependent relationship, known as the internationalisation of quality assurance and quality assurance of the internationalisation in higher education (e.g., van der Wende, 1999; Hauptman Komotar, 2018). This contribution focuses on the first aspect of the relationship in the context of the internationalisation of external and internal quality assurance systems in Slovenia and the seven Western Balkans countries (Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania). Although the launch of the Bologna Process increased the need to conduct comparative studies in these under-researched European ‘peripheries’, both Slovenia and the Western Balkans remained “largely remained terra incognita both regarding information and research on higher education” (Zgaga et al., 2013a, p. 23).
In the few existing comparative studies on higher education dynamics in this peripheral part of Europe, research on the internationalisation of quality assurance (agencies) was conducted within a broader study (entitled European Integration and Higher Education and Research in the Western Balkans (NORGLOBAL)) which did not include Slovenia in its (comparative) framework (see Brankovic et al., 2014). Conversely, Zgaga et al. (2013b) investigated the trend of internationalisation and international cooperation (and quality assurance) in higher education both in the Western Balkans and Slovenia; however, in their research, the interdependent relationship between the internationalisation and quality assurance was not explored to the same extent and depth as in this study.
To fill the research gap in the comparative study of both higher education phenomena, the present research provides answers to the following three questions:
(1) In what ways is the internationalisation of external and internal quality assurance systems being promotedin Slovenia and the Western Balkans countries?
(2) Which similarities and differences in their development and implementation can be identified?
(3) How is their existence associated with the centre-periphery structure?
Concretely, this means a comparison of (1) the prevailing understandings of the underlying concepts as well as (2) the development and implementation of various incentives (policies, strategies, activities, and specific initiatives) for the internationalisation of (external and internal) quality assurance in all selected country cases, including examples of good and more problematic practices, and (3) the inclusion of the centre-periphery structure in the framework of world-systems theory (Wallerstein, 1978), dependence theory (Eckstein & Noah, 1985), neo-colonialism (Altbach, 1971) and positioned in relation to globalisation, regionalisation and Europeanisation of higher education (Chou & Ravinet, 2015).
This study draws on findings from the ongoing postdoctoral research project (Z5-2658; funded by the Slovenian Research Agency) and considers (critical) analysis of documentary sources and interviews as the two main complementary methods of data collection. Documentary analysis of academic literature, recent national and international studies, research reports, institutional, national and supranational policy documents, and other materials is supported with findings from semi-structured interviews with different actors and stakeholders from each country case (such as representatives of: quality assurance agencies, institutional leadership, staff employed at quality assurance departments, etc.) and expert interviews with independent experts from each selected country. In interviews, a smaller number of purposefully selected individuals (20) participated online via Zoom and Skype, because within a larger sample, the phenomenon can only be treated on the surface and also, data collection and analysis may progress (too) lengthy. Methodologically, this research reflects on the reversed pyramid model of different vertical and horizontal levels of comparisons (ranging from the individual to global level), on the basis of which the discussion on the methodology in comparative higher education research can be stimulated (e.g., Hauptman Komotar, 2021).
Research reveals that in all countries examined, quality assurance/accreditation agencies were established as part of their commitment of joining the Bologna Process. The achievement or renewal of agencies’ full member status in ENQA (European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education) is, therefore, of utmost importance for strengthening their international outlook. In this respect, all agencies emphasize independence as their core value and the main principle for international cooperation. But for some, ensuring full independence from external entities still represents a considerable challenge and consequently, also their ENQA status varies from being a full member, an affiliate member or a member under review. Also, this means that greater importance is attached to their collaboration at the EHEA level, compliance of the functioning according to the European Standards and Guidelines (ESG), and EQAR registration (the so-called internationalisation of quality assurance agencies at home, see Grifoll et al., 2015). However, few cooperation activities and links can be observed beyond the Western Balkans region, since such cooperation may, for example, confront a language barrier. Furthermore, the internationalisation of internal quality assurance systems (most) frequently takes form of individual and sectoral institutional evaluations within the EUA’s Institutional Evaluation Programme, whilst international accreditations are in all cases much more frequently obtained by certain higher education institutions and study programmes than by others. Hence, the internationalisation of quality assurance systems in the selected countries does not simply take the form of implementing “ready-made ideas from international and/or transnational policy circles” (Zgaga, 2013, p. 369) and also, the prevailing explanations of the centre-periphery concept, which evolved under the influence of neo-colonialism, are nowadays quite problematic, since they fail to acknowledge the existence of specific national, institutional, and disciplinary responses to the supranational (i. e., global and regional) development of (internationalisation and quality assurance in) higher education.
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