The external evaluation of higher education institutions and study programme groups at higher education level is governed by the Higher Education Act and the Private Schools Act. The standard of higher education establishes the requirements for provision of instruction at the level of higher education.
To obtain the right to provide instruction on the level of higher education level, all higher education institutions in private law or public law or state higher education institutions shall submit applications to the Ministry of Education and Research together with the data specifying the quality of study, resources and sustainability. The application shall be processed by the Estonian Quality Agency for Higher and Vocational Education. In case of a positive decision, the right to provide instruction is established by a regulation of the Government of the Republic in the annex to the higher education standard.
The quality assurance system has two stages:
- institutional accreditation and
- quality assessment of a study programme group.
Every educational institution shall undergo both types of external assessment at least once within seven years.
Institutional accreditation is external assessment in the course of which the functioning of the higher education institution as a whole is assessed. Specifically, compliance of the management, work organisation, teaching and research and the environment of teaching and research of the higher education institution with the legislation, objectives and development plans of the higher education institution is determined. The purpose of the institutional accreditation is to support the development of strategic management and quality culture in the institution of higher education, inform interest groups of the results of the main activities of the higher education institution and increase reliability and competitiveness of higher education in Estonia.
The quality assessment of study programme groups is essentially feedback which supports the internal assessment of the higher education institution and self-development. In the course of the process, the compliance of the programmes as well as the study and the study-related development based on the programmes with legislation, national and international standards and developments are assessed for the purpose of making recommendations for improvement of the quality of study.
The quality assessment of study programme groups is not followed by sanctions and expert appraisals are of an advisory nature. Upon a significant deterioration of the quality of teaching, the state is entitled to initiate state supervision and, on the basis thereof, submit to the Government of the Republic a proposal for deprivation of the right to provide instruction.
The described external assessments shall be carried out by the Estonian Quality Agency for Education or by a competent foreign quality agency with its approval.
An educational institution may provide instruction on the level of higher education study and issue diplomas and academic degrees if it has been issued the right by the Government of the Republic. An educational institution must apply for this right; a respective procedure is organised by the Ministry of Education and Research. The Government of the Republic may grant the right to provide instruction either (a) for no fixed term or (b) for a fixed term of one to three years. In case significant deficiencies have been detected in assessing the application and provision of high-quality instruction cannot be guaranteed, the application will be rejected and the decision is approved by a decree of the Minister of Education and Research.
The activities of the Estonian Quality Agency for Education (HAKA, since 2022 Estonian Quality Agency for Higher and Vocational Education) are based on international principles. HAKA:
- organises and implements institutional accreditation in educational institutions that enable acquisition of higher education;
- organises and implements quality assessment of higher education level curricular groups;
- publishes the conditions and procedures of institutional accreditation and quality assessment;
- periodically undergoes internationally acknowledged external evaluation.
HAKA comprises a bureau of organising evaluations and an evaluation council conducting evaluations.
At least one expert from each field of study is a member of the evaluation council. Candidates for membership of the evaluation council can be presented by universities, institutions of professional higher education, research and development institutions, registered vocational and trade unions, employers’ unions and unions of students’ organisations.
The National Audit Office checks the activities of public universities according to the National Audit Office Act. State supervision of the legality of the activities of a university is exercised by the Ministry of Education and Research.
Approaches and methods for quality assurance
Higher education level studies may be conducted only in case the Government of the Republic has granted the right to conduct studies in an according study programme group. This right is accompanied by the right to issue national graduation documents.
In order to receive the right to conduct higher education level studies, an educational institution must apply for the right. The unit for which the right is applied is a study programme group.
For the sake of guaranteeing a homogeneous result and equal treatment, the procedure of applying for the right to conduct study is applied to all educational institutions regardless if they are private, public or state-owned. Applications are accompanied by data that enable the evaluation of the objectives and learning outcomes of curricula, the number and qualification of teaching staff, the existence of study materials and financing resources. It is also compulsory to explain the need for starting offering study, including data on the target group and proposals of vocational and trade unions.
The procedure of and expert assessment for granting rights for conducting study is organised by the Ministry of Education and Research as the matter is related to development of the national education policy. In the first assessment – a highly important component in granting the right to conduct study – the Estonian Quality Agency for Education as the most competent body in this field as well as additional experts (from higher education institutions, businesses, vocational unions, etc.), invited by the former if required, are involved.
When applying for the right to conduct Doctoral study, data about the evaluation of the research and development activities of the field forming the basis of the respective Doctoral study must be presented.
External evaluation is carried out in educational institutions either as institutional accreditation or quality assessment of curricular groups. External evaluation is organised and implemented by the Estonian Quality Agency for Higher and Vocational Education who involves, in addition to experts of the agency’s evaluation council, also other experts in its activities.
Educational institutions may submit an application to the Estonian Quality Agency for Higher and Vocational Education that external evaluation would be conducted by another acknowledged (submitted in the EQAR registry) international quality agency.
Higher education institutions have the obligation to undergo institutional accreditation once in 7 years but, if the Estonian Quality Agency for Higher and Vocational Education has detected shortcomings in the previous accreditation process, also an up to 3-year deadline may be given after which time the institution must again undergo institutional accreditation.
Institutional accreditation evaluates the internal quality assurance system of an educational institution and the functioning thereof, including performance of the tasks of the institution and the correspondence of its management system to the objectives and development plan of the institution.
The Estonian Quality Agency for Higher and Vocational Education will issue, as a result of an institutional accreditation procedure conducted, one of the following decisions:
- Management of the higher education institution, organisation of work and teaching and research as well as the environment for teaching and research in the institution comply with the requirements, and it is decided to grant the university accreditation for seven years;
- Shortcomings have been exposed in the management of the higher education institution, in its organisation of work, teaching and research or teaching and research environment. Guidelines are given for correcting the shortcomings and a decision to grant the university accreditation for three years is made;
- Management of the higher education institution, its organisation of work, teaching and research as well as teaching and research environment do not comply with the requirements. A decision not to grant the university accreditation is made. The Minister of Education and Research is informed and guidelines are given for eliminating the deficiencies. Receiving this information forms the basis for the Ministry of Education and Research to initiate state supervision or quality assessment of curricular groups in the higher education institution or reorganisation/closure of the educational institution.
If the Estonian Quality Agency for Higher and Vocational Education has brought the minister’s attention to severe deficiencies in the internal quality assurance system of an institution, the minister first has the right to give the institution a deadline for eliminating the deficiencies. If the deficiencies are not eliminated or the educational institution cannot eliminate them without additional resources, the minister has the right to initiate the quality assessment of all curricular groups of the educational institution at the expense of the institution (in case of a state-owned institution, at the expense of the state) or a reorganisation/closure of the educational institution and withdrawal of the right to conduct studies.
In case the quality assessment of all curricular groups leads to the result that also the quality of studies is not satisfactory in the educational institution, the Minister of Education and research brings this information to the Government of the Republic, together with the proposal to withdraw the institution’s right to conduct studies. Hence, deficiencies detected in the course of institutional accreditation may lead to the closure of an educational institution.
Quality assessment of curricular groups focuses on evaluating the quality of studies carried out on the basis of the curricula, including assessment of the correspondence of teaching staff to established requirements.
Quality assessment of curricular groups is conducted once in every 7 years if the Estonian Quality Agency for Education has not, based on the results of the previous quality assessment procedure, established a deadline of up to 3 years.
The results of quality assessment comprise an evaluation decision and specific proposals regarding how the educational institution could enhance its quality of studies. In very exceptional cases when the quality of studies has dramatically fallen compared to the results of the previous quality assessment, the Estonian Quality Agency for Education has the obligation to inform the Minister of Education and Research thereof. In such a case the minister must conduct state supervision, the result of which may, in the worst case, be the withdrawal of the right to carry out studies. The decision to withdraw the right to carry out studies must be accompanied with a solution for the question of how the students studying in the educational institution can continue their studies.
Only state supervision can form the basis for withdrawal of the right to carry out studies. The Ministry of Education and Research may initiate state supervision either on its own initiative or according to the proposal of the Estonian Quality Agency for Higher and Vocational Education. The Minister of Education and Research may submit a proposal to the Government of the Republic to withdraw an educational institution’s right to conduct studies in case:
- illegality of the activity of an institution is identified as a result of state supervision and the precept for elimination of such illegality is not fulfilled, or
- significant deterioration in study quality, in the internal quality assurance system or its functioning compared to the previously evaluated situation has been identified, or
- the educational institution has not fulfilled the obligation to participate in institutional accreditation or quality assessment.
The same proposal will be made to the Government of the republic also in case a negative evaluation result is received with regard to a scientific field that forms a basis for Doctoral studies.