What you need to know
The external evaluation of higher education institutions by the AERES takes account of both the general framework of European principles that have been defined and recent changes made to the French system.
European Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance
In contexts which can appear to be strikingly different, those European countries signed up to the Bologna Process are endeavouring to set up external evaluation tools that comply with common principles. These have been defined in the European Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance, and concern quality assurance within institutions, external quality assurance such as ensured by evaluation agencies as well as quality assurance applied to the agencies themselves. This is how, to illustrate, the principle of independence of evaluation agencies is reflected in France in the status of an independent administrative authority, which AERES has. More generally, the AERES' recognition and inclusion in the EQAR (European Quality Assurance Register) guarantee that its practices are fully in line with the European principles.
With respect to the external evaluation of institutions, the European Standards and Guidelines state that:
- the aims and objectives of evaluation must be clear and widely disseminated;
- the evaluation methods must meet their objectives and be based on suitable procedures;
- the evaluation experts and evaluated parties must be familiar with the procedures used;
- the criteria must be explicit and published in particular.
Between independence and contractualisation: self-evaluation and integrated external evaluation
By stating that the evaluation of institutions is part of quality assurance, the meaning given to this term should be clarified: here, "quality policy" means the policy that an institution defines and implements to develop its strategy, monitor its activity, evaluate the extent to which its objectives are being met and define any adaptations or amendments that appear necessary. The result is that the evaluation encompasses both the assessment of the activities and results and the analysis of continuous improvement mechanisms and procedures.
The regulations in force also stipulate that higher education institutions (universities, schools and other) must be evaluated periodically, in keeping with their independence and ahead of any contractual (or conventional) negotiations with the State. The external evaluation performed by a committee of independent experts thus provides the stakeholders – operators and State – with information aimed at giving remarks an objective perspective and identifying the most important issues.
In this regard, the external evaluation of an institution is based on the self-evaluation report . Thanks to the external perspective that the expert committee gives to the institution, it discusses, confirms or invalidates and puts the self-evaluation findings into perspective; where applicable it also identifies the related shortcomings. It highlights the strengths of the institution and pinpoints any weaknesses.
The external evaluation of an institution is, moreover, a process incorporating research and training activities in an overall strategic analysis – forging the link between governance, steering and practice of missions. The latter are determined by legislation and regulations and, in this document, we have referred to the definition of missions of the public higher education service supplied in the French Education Code . The evaluation examines the organisation, running and results of the institution in each of the fields of activity concerned, with close attention paid to its quality policy. As such, for the universities, the process is based on the evaluation of their training programmes and degrees, their research units and their doctoral schools which – in addition to their intrinsic worth – are all stages prior to the institutional evaluation; for schools, these stages are adjusted based on their specific features and, for example, on any special national bodies that may exist dedicated to the evaluation of a given field of activity.
 It is important to remember that the institution is alone responsible for the self-evaluation report, and remains free to organise this without taking account of the interpretation guide given in these standards. The document "Evaluation of institutions: pointers for self-evaluation" contains developments on this subject, as well as diverse indications and examples for anyone who would like to find out more about the issues and methods of preparing for a self-evaluation.
 The higher education service comprising, in the terms of article L. 123-1 of the French Education Code, "all of the post-secondary training programmes supervised by different ministerial departments"; this starting point is broad enough to encompass all institutions concerned. It is therefore worth each institution factoring in the definition of its missions, which is why the first reference is made to the standards.