Accreditation and quality assurance
Quality assurance at Austrian universities
In the higher education sector, quality assurance helps universities to achieve their goals. It ensures greater transparency and increased trust in the relevance and quality of higher education institutions. The Act on Quality Assurance in Higher Education (HS-QSG) is the legal basis for the external quality assurance of public universities, universities of applied sciences and private universities.
The term ‘quality assurance’ refers to various concepts and measures for developing and monitoring the quality of universities’ performance. Quality assurance can be directed inwards, with quality management systems being set up within the university, for example (internal quality assurance). This differs from external quality assurance, in which independent external experts assess the effectiveness of internal quality assurance procedures.
External quality assurance
The aims of external quality assurance are to promote quality development at universities and to provide the public with evidence of the way in which universities assume responsibility for maintaining and developing quality. The results of quality assurance procedures are therefore publicly available.
The Act on Quality Assurance in Higher Education (HS-QSG) distinguishes between two external quality assurance procedures: accreditation and certification by audit. Accreditation and audits have different objectives and therefore encompass different assessment areas.
Accreditation procedures are used to determine whether a higher education institution or degree programme meets prescribed (minimum) standards and to award the (temporary) right to operate a higher education institution or conduct higher education degree programmes. In this context, a distinction is made between institutional accreditation procedures and programme accreditation procedures. If the findings are positive, these procedures lead to federal recognition of a higher education institution and/or degree programme. Accreditation procedures are required for private universities and their degree programmes, for the introduction of new degree programmes at universities of applied sciences and for the establishment of new universities of applied sciences.
An audit is a cyclical peer review process that assesses the performance of a university’s institutional quality management system. This is designed to ensure that the quality management system supports the university’s performance areas and makes an important contribution to the quality assurance and quality development of the institution. Consequently, certification by audit confirms the performance of the internal quality management system of a higher education institution. Public universities and established universities of applied sciences must undergo audits of this kind, carried out by external assessors.
Agency for Quality Assurance and Accreditation Austria (AQ Austria)
AQ Austria is a legally established cross-sector agency for quality assurance and accreditation. As an independent body for external quality assurance in the higher education sector, AQ Austria is responsible for conducting accreditation procedures and audits in Austria. In addition to AQ Austria, other internationally recognised and independent agencies may also carry out audits; most of these agencies are listed in the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education, or EQAR (Regulation on Quality Assurance Agencies, in German only).
European reference framework
Regardless of the type of quality assurance procedure, the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (ESG) provide the international reference framework for Austria’s higher education quality assurance system. The standards and guidelines formulated in this document form the common reference point for quality assurance for higher education institutions and quality assurance agencies in the European Higher Education Area.