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AQAF Guidelines: Setting the Benchmark and Enhancing Quality in ASEAN Higher Education Institutions

By Dr Hazman Shah Abdullah


What is the AQAF Guidelines?

The ASEAN Quality Assurance Framework (AQAF) Guidelines is important because it is the backbone of quality assurance in the ASEAN region.

Finalised in 2020 and published in June 2021 by the ASEAN Quality Assurance Network (AQAN) and supported by the SHARE Programme, the AQAF Guidelines is the continuation of a journey that started in earnest in 2008 with the establishment of AQAN. To harmonise and enhance quality (and quality assurance) of higher education in ASEAN, AQAF was mooted in 2011 which led to the setting up of a drafting task force. The first draft AQAF for Higher Education was endorsed in 2013 and confirmed as AQAF in 2014.

The AQAF document has two key parts, i.e. the Quality Assurance (QA) principles expressed in 4 related quadrants, and a brief guideline for agency review. With the support of the SHARE programme, ASEAN and European experts developed a complete set of guidelines for agency review under AQAF. These guidelines provided guidance for the training of agency staff in the preparation of self-assessment report (SAR) by addressing the AQAF principles using a standard template; training of the reviewers/assessors in the AQAF principles and report writing; and the management of the reviews by AQAN and agencies using a joint team of ASEAN and European experts.

The development of the AQAF Guidelines

Four national External Quality Assurance Agencies (EQAAs) volunteered to undergo the first pilot agency review commencing in 2017 to implement these guidelines. The pilot reviews together with the analysis of the review reports by 2 European experts and the feedback from different participants in the process provided a wealth of information and insight on the review process, including the interpretation of the principles, the training of agency staff and reviewers/assessors, SAR preparation, agency visits, report writing, and follow-up.

The feedback and lessons from the pilot exercise were used to improve the AQAF Guidelines for future agency reviews. Some of the key challenges identified in the feedback were the need for more effective agency staff training in AQAF; the need for better training for reviewers/assessors to enable a common interpretation of the principles; and the need to provide more local illustrations and to address language/communication barriers.

The future of AQAF

A series of discussions between AQAN, the EQAAs, and the European experts led to the improved  AQAF guidelines (published in 2021). The latest edition of the AQAF guidelines promotes the AQAF principles, purpose, scope, and approaches as an aspirational framework which is voluntary and developmental in nature. The Guidelines describe and provide guidance on the agency review.  Subject matter includes the AQAF framework and its interpretation, the review processes, timelines, roles and responsibilities of all parties, agency visits, review schedule, reports and reporting by expert peer reviewers/assessors, review outcomes, and the follow-up on the recommendations. An improved template for SAR preparation by EQAAs and an aligned reviewers/assessors’ report template are also provided.

The new AQAF guidelines have been received positively by AQAN members. It is hoped that the latest edition of the AQAF Guidelines will continue to strengthen the agency review process which the AQAN, EQAAs in the region, and the SHARE partners can be proud of. The guidelines are now ready to take the next group of ASEAN EQAAs through a process of self-reflection and enhancement and progress towards creating a quality common higher education space.

The AQAF Guidelines for the Review of External Assurance Agencies in ASEAN (2020) is available HERE.


About the Author

Dr Hazman Shah Abdullah is Technical Advisor to the ASEAN Quality Assurance Network (AQAN). He was one of several experts involved in the process of drafting and updating the ASEAN Quality Assurance Framework Guidelines for the Review of External Quality Assurance Agencies in ASEAN.

Quality Assurance is a process that involves review of educational benchmarks to measure and maintain the quality, efficiency, and effectiveness of an education provider. In the context of Higher Education, Quality Assurance involves self-assessment of the Higher Education Institution (HEI/the education provider), evaluation of the study programmes and/or HEI from an external body (also known as “external quality assurance”), and assessments from students as well as evaluation of teaching staff.

Higher Education Institutions have a relatively high degree of institutional autonomy and self-responsibility, and conflicting interests of different stakeholders makes harmonisation of Higher Education a particularly complex feat. Instruments such as (external) quality assurance frameworks and practices support harmonisation of Higher Education areas by setting common standards and guidelines, which create mutual trust for stakeholders, including labour markets and employers, in the quality of programmes and degrees awarded by HEIs of different countries.

Find out more about the purpose and role of Quality Assurance in Higher Education in the ASEAN Region in the Higher Education Quality Assurance in the ASEAN Region Report (Niedermeier and Pohlenz, 2016).

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