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EACEA National Policies Platform:Eurydice
Quality assurance in higher education


11.Quality assurance

11.2Quality assurance in higher education

Last update: 8 May 2024

Responsible bodies

The supervision of higher education institutions is exercised by the relevant Land Ministry of Science and Research. External evaluation is performed by regional evaluation agencies at Land level or by networks or associations of higher education institutions covering all Länder. The German Science and Humanities Council (Wissenschaftsrat) carries out the institutional accreditation procedures for non-state universities.

For the accreditation of Bachelor's and Master's degree programmes, the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs of the Länder in the Federal Republic of Germany (Kultusministerkonferenz) has established a Foundation Accreditation Council (Stiftung Akkreditierungsrat). The Foundation Accreditation Council is a joint institution of the Länder for accreditation and quality assurance in studies and teaching at German higher education institutions. Through the Foundation, the Länder jointly perform their tasks within the framework of quality assurance and quality development and thus fulfil their national responsibility in the higher education sector for ensuring the equivalence of corresponding study and examination achievements as well as degrees and the possibility of changing higher education institutions. The bodies of the Foundation are the Accreditation Council, the Executive Board and the Foundation Council.

According to the State Treaty on the Accreditation of Studies (Studienakkreditierungsstaatsvertrag), the Accreditation Council Foundation serves the fulfilment of the following tasks in detail:

  • To accredit and re-accredit study programmes and internal quality assurance systems of higher education institutions as well as other quality assurance procedures by awarding the seal of the foundation.
  • To define the conditions for the recognition of accreditations by foreign institutions, taking into account developments in Europe.
  • To promote international cooperation in the field of accreditation and quality assurance.
  • To regularly report to the Länder on the development of the consecutive system of study and on quality development within the framework of accreditation.
  • To admit the agencies for the assessment and preparation of an expert opinion with decision and evaluation recommendations.
  • To support the Länder in the further development of the German quality assurance system.

The Accreditation Council as responsible body decides on all matters of the Accreditation Council Foundation. The Accreditation Council comprises eight professors from institutions of higher education, one representative of the German Rectors' Conference (Hochschulrektorenkonferenz – HRK), four representatives of the Länder, five representatives from among professional practitioners, including one representative from the ministries of the Länder responsible for legislation governing service and wages, two students, two foreign representatives with accreditation experience as well as one representative of the accreditation agencies in an advisory capacity.

Approaches and methods of quality assurance

Supervision of higher education institutions

Higher education institutions are subject to state supervision which is exercised by the Länder. Legal supervision encompasses all activities of the higher education institution. It is checked here whether the higher education institution has, by its actions or omissions, infringed laws or other statutory provisions. A more wide-ranging supervision is carried out in those areas for which the state is responsible, as opposed to academic affairs. This includes staff administration and economic, budgetary and financial management, i.e. participation in the preparation of the responsible minister's budget and in its implementation, the organisation of the higher education institution and the establishments affiliated to it, the management of budgetary funds, and so on. Within the relevant Land Ministry of Science and Research, the higher education supervisory authority examines whether actions taken are appropriate and economically efficient and whether targets are being fulfilled. Economic efficiency is also monitored by the audit office of the relevant Land.

The tasks of determining training capacity and setting admission figures are also subject to supervision by the higher education supervisory authority. Higher education institutions or rather the respective Land ministries issue ordinances or regulations on admission figures for the number of available places in higher education. These require education and training capacity to be used to the full, subject to budgetary constraints and the available premises, and to subject-related factors. The quality of research and teaching, and the proper performance of the functions of the higher education institution, particularly in research, teaching and study, must be guaranteed.

A legal obligation to submit regular reports on teaching and study exists in most Länder. These reports are usually set up by the departments within higher education institutions and published by the institution's governing body. The following factors, among others, may serve as indicators in the report on teaching: the ratio of those that start a course to those that complete it, the proportion of students within the standard period of study, the examination success rate and the whereabouts of graduates. Several Länder have begun to develop stipulations on the content and form of teaching reports.

The assessment of the quality of teaching has been provided for since 1998. In accordance with the principle of academic freedom, professors and junior professors perform their research and teaching duties independently. The scope and organisation of teaching is subject to supervision by the higher education supervisory authorities only in so far as the scope of teaching commitments is laid down in a teaching load ordinance, the contents of Bachelor’s and Master’s degree courses must comply with the requirements of the applicable study and examination regulations and must provide a qualification for a profession.

Evaluation in the higher education sector

In its resolution on quality assurance in teaching at higher education institutions from September 2005, the Standing Conference defined the indispensable core elements of a coherent quality management system encompassing all aspects of higher education institutions, which combines different measures and procedures of quality assurance. Such measures and procedures also include an evaluation which refers to certain indicators and specifies individual tools (e.g., combination of internal and external evaluation, involvement of students and graduates).

Meanwhile, to support internal evaluation and implement external evaluation of the different tasks of the institutions of higher education, an infrastructure of Land-level and supraregional-level establishments has now come into being (agencies at Land level, networks/associations at supraregional level). In Germany a two-tiered system of evaluation is widely applied which combines internal and external evaluation. The internal evaluation consists of a systematic inventory and analysis of teaching and studying, taking account of research, performed by the individual department or the faculty and concludes with a written report. On this foundation, an assessment by external experts takes place who also lay down their findings and recommendations in a written final report.

At both the level of the institutions of higher education and at ministry level, various international cooperative measures exist for the development and implementation of evaluation measures. External evaluations generally take the form of peer reviews, i.e. they are performed by competent experts from other institutions of higher education, research establishments or from the business community and are repeated at various intervals.

Student criticism of classes, in some cases involving graduates, has now also become a widespread method of evaluating teaching in the sector of higher education. Such criticism primarily serves the purpose of optimising teaching within the higher education institution and is not an official means of monitoring teaching staff. The aim is for higher education teaching staff to listen to criticism so that they can assess themselves better and rectify shortcomings.

The aim of the evaluation measures is, firstly, to subject academic standards in teaching, teaching methods and the success of teaching to regular assessment. The findings can then be used to identify possible measures for improving courses and teaching. Furthermore, it is also necessary for higher education institutions to account to the public for their achievements in teaching and research. The results of the evaluation are increasingly being taken into account in the Länder as a basis for allocating resources to higher education institutions. Attempts to evaluate higher education institutions should generally be viewed against the overall background of renewal of the higher education sector, the main elements of which include reform of the structure of study, greater financial autonomy for higher education institutions and improved management.

Quality of teaching

The agreement between the Federation and the Länder Innovation in Higher Education Teaching (Innovation in der Hochschullehre) concluded in June 2019 as the successor to the Teaching Quality Pact (Qualitätspakt Lehre) from 2010 has been promoting the further development of higher education teaching and its strengthening in the higher education system as a whole since 2021. To this end, the Foundation for Innovation in Higher Education Teaching (Stiftung Innovation in der Hochschullehre) was established under the auspices of the Toepfer Stiftung gGmbH. Appropriate funding formats are intended to motivate institutions of higher education to continue their efforts to improve quality and innovations in teaching and learning. In addition, the exchange and networking of relevant actors as well as knowledge transfer is to be supported.

Even before the conclusion of the Teaching Quality Pact the Länder had taken measures to ensure and improve quality, e.g. to improve student-teacher ratios and other initiatives to develop the quality of teaching.

Another major challenge for institutions of higher education is the digitalisation of teaching and the associated integration of elements of digital learning into the regular curriculum.

Accreditation of study courses

In 2017, the Länder agreed on the State Treaty on the Organisation of a Joint Accreditation System for Quality Assurance in Studies and Teaching at German Institutions of Higher Education (State Treaty on Accreditation in Higher Education – Studienakkreditierungsstaatsvertrag), which came into force at the beginning of 2018. Deviating from the previously practised procedure of accreditation-by-accreditation agencies, a distinction is now made between assessment and preparation of the expert opinion with decision and evaluation recommendations on the one hand, which are to be carried out by the agencies, and the accreditation decision on the other hand, which is made by the Foundation Accreditation Council as an administrative act.

The assurance and development of quality in studies and teaching is primarily the task of the higher education institutions, which fulfil this task through internal measures of quality assurance and quality development. The procedures used by the higher education institutions generally relate either to ensuring the efficiency of internal quality management systems with external participation (system accreditation) or to quality assurance and quality development of individual study programmes with external participation (programme accreditation). It is the task of the Länder within the framework of quality assurance and quality development to ensure the equivalence of corresponding study and examination achievements and degrees as well as the possibility of changing higher education institutions. Programmes whose quality is assured on the basis of the State Treaty on the Accreditation of Higher Education are recognised in all Länder as equivalent in terms of quality assurance under higher education legislation.

Formal criteria for quality assurance are study structure and duration, study programme profiles, admission requirements and transitions between study programmes, degrees and degree designations, modularisation, mobility and credit point systems, equalisation of Bachelor's and Master's programmes with previous Diplom, Staatsexamen and Magister programmes, measures to recognise achievements in the event of a change of higher education institution or study programme and achievements outside the higher education institution.

The subject-content criteria include:

  • The qualification objectives of a degree programme corresponding to the desired level of qualification, which relate, among other things, to the area of scientific or artistic aptitude as well as aptitude for qualified employment and personal development.
  • The conformity of the qualification objectives with a conclusive study programme concept and its implementation through an adequate equipment with resources, appropriate qualification of the lecturers and corresponding competence-oriented examinations as well as studyability.
  • Technical and content-related standards that are state-of-the-art in science and research
  • Measures for gender equality and compensation of disadvantages.
  • The concept of the quality management system and the measures to implement the concept.

The procedures of higher education institutions for ensuring and developing quality in studies and teaching with regard to system accreditation and programme accreditation are generally carried out:

  • At the request of the higher education institution, to be submitted to the Accreditation Council
  • On the basis of a self-evaluation report of the higher education institution containing at minimum information on the quality objectives of the higher education institutions and the above-mentioned criteria
  • With the decisive participation of external independent experts from the social sectors relevant to quality assurance
  • Through assessment and preparation of an expert opinion with recommendations for decisions and evaluation by an agency approved by the Foundation Accreditation Council.
  • Under participation of subject-related lecturers at higher education institutions

Before the final decision on accreditation is made, the higher education institution is given the opportunity to comment. The decision of the Accreditation Council comprises the determination of compliance with the formal criteria and the technical-content criteria. The procedure is documented. The expert opinion and the decisions are published in an appropriate manner.

The Länder determine the details of the formal criteria, the technical-content criteria and the procedure by ordinance. These regulations are based on a model regulation drawn up jointly by the Länder and are essentially identical.

The vast majority of Bachelor's and Master's degree programmes are subject to accreditation in accordance with the relevant Land legislation, including Bachelor's and Master's degree programmes which convey the educational prerequisites for a teaching post.

Article 15 of the State Treaty on Study Accreditation stipulates that the accreditation system is to be evaluated regularly and within a reasonable period of time, for the first time five years after the State Treaty comes into force, in particular with regard to the organisational structure and the work of the Accreditation Council Foundation as well as the other procedural regulations. This evaluation is preceded by a review of the application and impact of the Model Law Ordinance three years after its entry into force in accordance with Section 36 of the Model Law Ordinance. The committees of the Standing Conference are currently working on this evaluation. An amendment to the Model Law Ordinance is planned for 2024.

Accreditation and recognition of non-state institutions of higher education

The procedures of institutional accreditation (institutional (re-)accreditation, award of the right to confer doctoral degrees and concept review) are carried out by the German Science and Humanities Council (Wissenschaftsrat) on behalf of the Länder. In doing so, it examines whether a non-state institution of higher education is capable of fulfilling its tasks in accordance with recognized scientific standards. After successful accreditation, the higher education institutions receive the seal of the German Science and Humanities Council. Furthermore, the accreditation procedures supplement the information base of the Länder with a scientific assessment in the procedures for state recognition.