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Quality assurance in higher education


11.Quality assurance

11.2Quality assurance in higher education

Last update: 23 February 2023

Responsible Bodies for Quality Assurance in Higher Education – Ireland

Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI)

Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) is the independent state agency with responsibility for the external quality assurance (QA) of higher education in Ireland. It was established in 2012 by the Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) Act 2012.  Under the Act, QQI is required to develop and publish guidelines for providers for the QA of their programmes and services. QQI has published a set of statutory core QA guidelines, which outline the elements of a provider’s quality assurance system that are fundamental and common to all providers associated with QQI, as well as sector and topic-specific QA guidelines, which apply to specific areas beyond the core guidelines, and which may or may not apply to individual providers. The QQI QA guidelines have been developed in line with the Standards and Guidelines for QA in the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) 2015(ESG).

Providers are primarily responsible for quality assuring their own programmes.  In doing so, providers are required by legislation to "have regard to QQI guidelines" (see s. 28 (2), Qualifications and Quality Assurance Act 2012 [the 2012 Act]) in developing their own procedures for quality assurance.

The higher education sector in Ireland includes the universities and their associated colleges, the institutes of technology (IoTs) and providers within the private, independent sector making awards on the National Framework of Qualifications.

The National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ)

The NFQ is enshrined in legislation and was established in 2003 as a framework for the development, recognition and award of qualifications in the State. Based on a system of levels of knowledge, skill and competence, the NFQ promotes transparency and trust in qualifications. Because the NFQ has been formally aligned with the European Qualifications Framework and the Qualifications Framework for the European Higher Education Area, qualifications achieved in Ireland enjoy an international currency and holders of such qualifications find it easier to use their qualifications in Europe and beyond.

The 2012 Act requires designated awarding bodies (DABs; i.e. “those bodies with the authority in law to make awards and to whom the 2012 Act applies”, Sector-specific Statutory QA Guidelines for DABs, p. 1) to include their qualifications in the NFQ. This means that the awarding bodies must ensure that learners have acquired the standard of knowledge, skill, and competence associated with the relevant NFQ level before an award is made. Internal QA procedures should therefore be capable of demonstrating that programmes and qualifications offered by DABs are developed with reference to the NFQ and are monitored over time to ensure that NFQ standards are maintained. This expectation is also made explicit in Part 1 of the ESG (p. 12), which stipulates that institutions should have processes for the design and approval of their programmes. Programmes should be designed so that they meet the objectives set for them, including the intended learning outcomes. The qualification resulting from a programme should be clearly specified and communicated and refer to the correct level of the NFQ and, consequently, to the Framework for Qualifications of the EHEA.

QQI’s QA Framework

It is national policy that the QA procedures put in place by higher education institutions (HEIs) must have regard to QQI statutory QA guidelines and must be comprehensive, covering all of the institution’s education, training, research and related activities.  QQI’s QA framework, illustrated in the diagram below, consists of internal monitoring and review by the provider, annual quality reporting, and external periodic cyclical review.

Annual Institutional Quality Report (AIQR)

Each public HEI submits an AIQR to QQI. The reporting period is the academic year, which runs from September 1 to August 31st. The AIQR documents each institution’s QA activities, developments, enhancements and impacts during the reporting year. The AIQR provides information on QA governance, policies and procedures, and on QA activities, and changes/developments in the reporting year. The AIQRs are published on QQI’s website. Once all AIQRs have been submitted, QQI performs a desk review of each report and prepares a synthesis report, identifying sector-wide themes, highlighting QA developments and disseminating good practice.

QQI QA Framework

Cyclical Review

The purpose of the cyclical review is to provide an independent external review of the effectiveness and implementation of HEIs’ own internal QA procedures. Cyclical reviews take place on a periodic scheduled basis. QQI has established a Policy for the Cyclical Review of Higher Education Institutions.

The current QQI review cycle (the ‘CINNTE’ cycle) began in 2017 and will run for seven years until 2023. It is in keeping with Parts 2 and 3 of the ESG 2015 and based on the internationally accepted and recognised approach to reviews, i.e., the publication of terms of reference; an institutional self-evaluation report (ISER); an external assessment and site visit by a team of reviewers; the publication of a review report including findings and recommendations; and a follow-up procedure to review actions taken.

The 2012 Act requires that QQI consult with the Higher Education Authority (HEA) in carrying out external review. QQI has agreed with HEA that this will take the form of engagement with QQI on the terms of reference for review and confirmation of the institution’s status within the higher education system, sharing individual institutional profiles and data with the review team.

Higher Education Landscape

The 2011 National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030  provided for substantial changes to the landscape of Irish higher education including reform of teacher education, improved institutional alignment and consolidation within the Institute of Technology sector, as well as a pathway for consolidated institutes to become technological universities (TUs).

The establishment of TU Dublin (see below) has increased the number of universities in Ireland to eight and reduced the number of IoTs to 11. In addition, amendments to the 2012 Act have introduced a mechanism whereby institutions that meet certain eligibility criteria will be able to apply for authorisation from the Minister for Education to describe themselves as universities.

Apart from the universities and IoTs, there are a number of other HEIs in receipt of public funding that are linked providers of a particular DAB (i.e. the DAB in question is the awarding body for its linked provider[s]). There are also a number of private independent HEIs operating in Ireland for whom QQI is the awarding body (i.e. QQI approves these bodies’ QA procedures and validates their programmes of education and training).


Technological University Development 

The Technological Universities Act was signed into law in March 2018, which accelerated the pace of progress on applications by IoTs for designation as technological universities.  On 1 January 2019, Technological University (TU) Dublin, Ireland’s first technological university, was formally established. Its 28500 students come from all over Ireland and parts of the globe.   The new university has campuses in Dublin City, and two campuses in Greater Dublin Regions – Blanchardstown and Tallaght. A new city campus is near completion in a 73-acre site in Grangegorman, central Dublin. This is the largest higher education development in Europe.

Three other consortia of IoTs are currently engaged with the process seeking to become designated as technological universities:

  • Munster Technological University (MTU), consisting of Cork Institute of Technology and Institute of Technology Tralee. This TU would comprise some 14,000 students.
  • Technological University for South-East Ireland (TUSEI), consisting of Waterford Institute of Technology and Institute of Technology Carlow. This TU would encompass some 14,500 students.
  • Connacht Ulster Alliance (CUA), consisting of Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, Institute of Technology Sligo, and Letterkenny Institute of Technology. This consortium would encompass some 16,000 students.

Higher Education Funding and the Higher Education Authority (HEA)

The HEA is the statutory planning and policy development body for higher education and research in Ireland. It is also the funding authority for the universities, IoTs, and a number of designated higher education institutions. It leads the strategic development of the Irish higher education and research system and has a statutory responsibility to ensure the effective governance and regulation of HEIs and the higher education system.