One of the purposes of the Bologna Declaration (1999) was to encourage European cooperation in quality assurance of higher education with a view to developing comparable criteria and methodologies. The European Ministers of Education adopted in 2005 the "Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (ESG)" drafted by the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA) in co-operation and consultation with its member agencies and the other members of the “E4 Group” (ENQA, EUA, EURASHE and ESU). A new version was adopted in 2015 at Yerevan.
In 2007, the European Ministers of Education, having received the E4 London report agreed that the E4 should proceed to setting up the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education (EQAR). The Register was set up on 4 March 2008 as the first legal entity to emerge from the Bologna Process. EQAR listing has the ESG as criteria and thus provides information on quality assurance agencies that are in substantial compliance with this common European framework.
The E4 Group also organizes European Quality Assurance Fora annually, to discuss the latest developments in quality assurance.
The influence of the European Standards and Guidelines for quality assurance in higher education (ESG) is spreading and they are gaining acceptance as a shared reference point for all actors in European higher education. Currently EQAR is listing 24 agencies in 23 countries, compliant with the ESG, which can perform evaluations in any country of the EHEA.
Though, the fundamental responsibility for quality continues to rest within the higher education institutions. Internal quality assurance is a duty of the institutions, and the development of an effective “quality culture” is clearly linked with their degree of operational autonomy.
External quality assurance fulfils different needs: it combines both accountability for the reassurance of the public by providing information about quality and standards as well as an objective and developmental commentary for institutions. In this respect, the external evaluations are focusing either on study programmes, on institutions or on a combination of both.
Quality assurance is far from being a closed point of discussion in the EHEA. The ongoing debates include, amongst others: how to balance accountability and improvement within higher education institutions, on the one hand, and the shared responsibilities of higher education institutions, quality assurance agencies and policy-makers, on the other; how to make real the roles of different stakeholder groups (students, the business world, etc) and how to provide these groups with an adequate level of information; how to handle the increasing diversity across higher education (diversity of pedagogies, of institutions, of students, of expectations, of missions) and across national quality assurance settings; how to face the current economical constraints: budgetary cuts and pressures for commercialization of higher education.
Quality assurance has been a priority for the Bologna Process, but its mechanisms are not perceived as an end in themselves. Their ultimate goal is to enhance the quality of teaching and research and, in this respect, quality assurance agencies act as a support for institutions in their continuing development and, equally, have a key role as protectors of the public interest.