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Quality Assurance of Work-Based Learning in the European Higher Education Sector

The result of ENQA’s (European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education) large-scale survey on the status of quality assurance (QA) of work-based learning (WBL) within the context of the European higher education (HE) sector is out. The report shows that there is no single unified approach across Europe as practices vary significantly from country to country depending on national legislation, development of QA agencies, and the field of study. The report also revealed that the concept of WBL is still being predominantly used in the vocational education and training (VET) sector and that its conceptualization as well as application within HE is largely lacking.

The study in brief

The study was undertaken by ENQA as part of the Erasmus+ funded Knowledge Alliance project Integrating Entrepreneurship and Work Experience into Higher Education (WEXHE). The aim was to identify the role external QA agencies are playing, if any, in terms of guiding and assessing the integration of WBL into educational programs of HEIs in Europe. WBL is conceptualized as internships/work placements, apprenticeships, and courses/programs designed to encourage entrepreneurship. Survey responses were collected from 40 QA agencies operating in 26 European and Asian countries.

Major findings

Results show that there is no European-wide approach followed by QA agencies when it comes to WBL in HE, variations prevailing at different levels. To begin with, while QA agencies in some countries, such as Bulgaria and Norway, do not incorporate WBL in their external quality assurance procedures, in the case of the others, e.g. the UK and Croatia, WBL is part of the quality evaluation criteria. Then there is the unique case of Finland where HEIs can choose optional assessment areas depending on the profile they want to build. This means that some institutions can request some aspects of WBL, such as entrepreneurial education, to be evaluated as part of the external quality assurance procedure.

Secondly, there appears to be a difference in terminology as well. For instance, countries such as Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and to some extent Switzerland, do not use “apprenticeships” in the HE context, with the terminology being used only in the VET sector. In addition, QA was also found to be subject dependent. For instance, in the chiropractic profession, clinical internships appear to be mandatory. As such QA agencies tend to follow a more thorough evaluation including site visits, whereas in other fields, assuring the quality of WBL is assumed to be the ultimate responsibility of the degree-awarding institution, and QA agencies merely check that internal quality assurance procedures are in place. Moreover, the results indicate that institutions tend to give more attention to QA of WBL when it is a mandatory, credit-bearing part of the curricula.

Finally, through the literature review and the opinion of the respondents, the report showed that the attention given to WBL within HE is underdeveloped, with attention significantly skewed to the VET sector.

Reflection from the project consortium

In the light of the above-mentioned findings, the WEXHE consortium believes that the further development and refining of a conceptual tool to measure and analyse WBL within the context of higher education is essential. Including WBL as a component of the educational programs increases the likelihood that it will be covered by the internal quality assurance process of HEIs. In instances where it is not possible and/or desirable to carry out on-site evaluation of WBL, the WEXHE consortium believes that QA agencies may resort to examining proxy measures, such as learning outcomes, placement procedures, the nature of support provided, and the qualifications of mentors.

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