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Adult Education and Lifelong Learning in Europe and Beyond

Comparative Perspectives from the 2015 Würzburg Winter School


Edited By Regina Egetenmeyer

This volume presents comparisons of adult education and lifelong learning with a focus on educational policies, professionalization in adult education, participation in adult learning and education, quality in adult education, and educational guidance and counselling. The essays are based on comparisons discussed at the international Winter School «Comparative Studies in Adult and Lifelong Learning», held in Würzburg, Germany, February 2015. Sub-topics of lifelong learning were chosen for an in-depth comparison and analysis of the situation in various European countries and beyond.
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Comparing Quality Management Systems and procedures in Italy and Germany

← 170 | 171 →

Lisa Hilbig, Sabrina Thom & Silvia Tursi

Comparing Quality Management Systems and procedures in Italy and Germany


Talking about quality in the adult learning sector provokes a discussion about various issues: What is quality? Why is a discussion about quality in the adult learning sector necessary? How would a European perspective on the topic look like in order to compare the implementation of quality in different countries? Therefore, this article defines key terms by taking a comparative perspective and illustrating several similarities and differences of instruments and procedures of quality management systems (QMS) in Italy and Germany. This paper is based on the discussions during the 2015 Winter School on lifelong learning at the University of Würzburg, Germany.

Quality has been part of many debates in the adult learning sector in Germany for over 40 years (cf. Faulstich & Zeuner, 2010, p. 109). The stakeholders of the adult learning sector in Germany and internationally try to meet requirements between two identified approaches: On the one hand, the aim is to reach higher efficiency and effectiveness through high levels of achievement in learning outcomes at reasonable costs. On the other hand, there is a humanist approach concerning the development of the learner and social change (cf. Research voor Beleid, 2013, p. 30). The focus of the humanist approach is on the learning process and consumer protection. Critics of the quality discussion held in recent years point out that education in particular is not comparable to a service and needs the motivation and activity of the learner (cf. Poschalko, 2011, p. 28).

To determine categories of the term quality, the international study group created the following working definition of quality: In order to improve teaching and learning, institutions of the adult learning sector develop instruments to measure and analyse the efficiency and effectiveness of their educational processes. It has to be mentioned that quality processes take place at different levels of adult learning (cf. Faulstich & Zeuner, 2010, p. 113).

Many providers of adult learning in the European Union are required to show the implementation of several standards at different levels of their institution (cf. Research voor Beleid, 2013). However, the ways in which these standards are implemented vary widely, and the type and intensity of quality systems range from ← 171 | 172 → the concrete implementation of certificates which include planning, financing, learning, teaching, and evaluating to limited quality systems on the macro level (cf. Research voor Beleid, 2013, p. 21). In general, quality management systems measure the long-term inputs and outcomes of an institution. As a result, targeted developments oriented towards pre-defined quality criteria of an adult learning provider become possible (cf. Faulstich & Zeuner, 2010, p. 111).

This article refers to the circle of quality in the organisation. Section 2 points out different instruments and procedures according to various institutions and framework conditions in Italy and Germany. Discussing different sectors of adult learning—for instance vocational education, higher education1, and general education—the article demonstrates that quality management systems not only depend on the specific orientation and size of the institution but also to a large degree on the structural requirements of its own policy background, legislation, and economy. Furthermore, the conclusion will show similarities and differences of implementing quality management systems in the two European countries.

Quality Management System Procedures in Italy

The implementation of the quality management system of adult learning in Italy is quite challenging to analyse, as the various sectors of adult education are managed at different institutional levels. The attention will be focused on quality management systems (QMS) and quality assurance systems (QAS) in higher education and in vocational and educational training.

It was only in the past decade that Italy started to improve ‘quality’ in the sense given to this word by the European Recommendation. Before that, quality was conceived more as a means of control than an improvement measure, but lately many efforts have been made to align Italy’s quality systems with European standards.

Vocational education and training (VET)

The main actors in Italy’s vocational education and training system are the regions, together with the Ministry of Labour and Social Policies and the social partners. The latter also play an important role, having been recognised as partners of ← 172 | 173 → the regions for the planning of training and as potential providers of training schemes. Thus, the responsibility is shared between the national level, where the institutional framework is defined, the regional level, where a direct intervention in the process of defining, planning, and providing vocational education and training strategies is implemented, and the enterprise level, where training plans are elaborated and put into action.

For vocational education and training, the most important recent development is the National Plan for Quality Assurance (Piano nazionale per la garanzia di qualità dei sistema di istruzione e formazione professionale), introduced in March 2012 with the aim to introduce, in line with the European Recommendation, useful elements for the empowerment and qualitative development of vocational education and training systems (cf. Research voor Beleid, 2013, p. 255).

The National Plan introduces an accreditation system for all education providers, requiring them to meet minimal standards ex ante, living up to these standards during the accreditation period, and achieving and measuring results ex post. Moreover, ISO certificates are used to rationalise processes.

According to the EQAVET (European Quality Assurance in Vocational Education and Training) recommendation, the ten indicators to support evaluation and quality improvement are:

  • relevance of quality assurance systems for vocational education and training providers
  • investment in the training of teachers and trainers;
  • participation rate in VET programmes;
  • completion rate in VET programmes;
  • placement rate in VET programmes;
  • utilisation of acquired skills at the workplace;
  • unemployment rate;
  • presence of vulnerable groups;
  • mechanisms to identify training needs in the labour market;
  • schemes used to promote better access to vocational education and training.

These indicators are part of the Reference Framework, a voluntary instrument that can be implemented progressively and in accordance with national legislation and practices. They are not to be regarded as benchmarks but rather as support for culture in vocational education and training. ← 173 | 174 →2

The public agency in charge of monitoring the quality of the vocational education and training system is ISFOL (Istituto per lo sviluppo della formazione professionale dei lavoratori), which works under the supervision of the Ministry of Labour and Social Policies. ISFOL's main goals are to update the main national stakeholders about the initiatives of the EQAVET, to contribute with active support to the development of this programme, to bring methods into play to guarantee and develop quality in vocational education and training, and to coordinate activities on a national level.3

Higher education

Regarding higher education, quality management systems can be implemented in different fields, such as teaching, researching, and administrative support, and there is not always a connection between those systems. As a consequence, many different stakeholders are involved in the implementation of quality management systems, including students, families, enterprises, economic agents, society, professional orders, professors, and researchers.

Higher education is under the responsibility of the Ministry of Education, University, and Research, but universities are given a high level of autonomy. The national agency in charge of controlling and implementing quality is ANVUR (Agenzia nazionale di valutazione del sistema universitario e della ricerca).

Since 2013, the quality assurance of higher education has been monitored by the AVA system (Self-Assessment, Evaluation, Accreditation). The first requirement of this system is based on the development of internal self-evaluation activities to check the quality and efficacy of teaching and research. The second requirement implies a periodic external evaluation of the efficacy and efficiency of teaching and research. The third requirement is to provide periodic accreditation for location and courses. In the elaboration and development of this system, ANVUR respected the three principles of autonomy, responsibility, and evaluation (cf. Turri, 2014, p. 43). The strength of this system is mainly in the selection of external evaluators and in students’ involvement in the evaluation process. The central role of universities in the evaluation process and the focus on quantitative requirements are elements of weakness. The process is not sufficiently focused on the quality of competences and teaching. An element of further concern regarding the quality of competences can be seen in the experimental TECO test, developed by ANVUR in 2013. This test aims to test students’ general competences (problem solving, critical thinking, ability to communicate) during the final year of their ← 174 | 175 → cycle of studies, to satisfy the interests of stakeholders (the business community, above all) concerned about the improvement of university learning outcomes. An important role is also given to ISO certificates, which provide a more homogeneous and standardized means of quality control in all the higher education sectors, including teaching, research, and administrative services.

To conclude, it is important to mention that the non-formal sector of adult education lacks a legal framework and a national quality assurance and management system. To address this lack, some institutions have developed their own quality system with the aim of gaining external accreditation. One of the main examples is UPTER (Università popolare della terza età di Roma), the People’s University of Rome, which has developed a quality charter of its own to control the quality of the institution’s general organisation and to increase the transparency of the quality assurance and development system. It is divided into four sections, looking at quality at the strategic, organisational, operational, and costumer protection level. The core section is the operational level, in which staff competences are described and quality indicators and standards are elaborated (cf. Research voor Beleid, 2013, p. 87).

Quality Management System Procedures in Germany

Quality has been an issue for continuing learning in Germany since the 1990s (cf. Tödt, 2008, p. 86). There are various reasons, including limited resources and the aim to optimise workflows and working conditions (cf. Zech, 2006, p. 21). A buyer’s market has emerged in the continuing learning sector, which means that customers have to select from a wide range of offerings (cf. Zech, 2006, pp. 21–22). Certainly, customers are increasingly aware of quality (cf. Zech, 2006, p. 22). In Germany, there are many different models concerning quality in the adult education sector (cf. Hartz & Meisel, 2006, p. 63). Below, we will introduce two different examples of quality management system procedures used in liberal adult education and vocational continuing education. The first example is the LQW model, which has an educational focus; the second refers to the ISO series, which is broader in its applications.

The quality management system procedure in liberal adult education

LQW stands for Lernerorientierte Qualitätstestierung in der Weiterbildung, or learner-oriented quality certification for continuing education organisations. Its basic assumption is that education is not a product to be bought and sold (cf. Dalluege & Franz, 2008, p. 46). Because of the special character of this education sector, ← 175 | 176 → a particular quality management system is needed (cf. Zech, 2006, p. 89). LQW is the most widely used instrument in the field of public continuing education, especially at Germany’s adult learning centres (Volkshochschulen) (cf. Dalluege & Franz, 2008, p. 11). The Volkshochschule is a public continuing education provider offering a wide range of courses (e.g. language and culture courses or courses on political or health-related topics, etc.) (cf. Süssmuth & Sprink, 2011, p. 479). They offer courses that are, as a general rule, accessible to the entire population (cf. Süssmuth & Sprink, 2011, p. 473). Volkshochschulen are financed through course fees, public grants, and external funds (cf. DVV, n.d.).

The goal of LQW is not only quality assurance but also quality development and it focuses on the learners (cf. Zech, 2006, p. 89). The model works with a definition of ‘successful learning’ (gelungenes Lernen) that looks at ideal outcomes of learning (cf. Zech, 2006, p. 37).

LQW quality development and attestation has eleven quality areas, including a mission statement, teaching and learning processes, controlling, and evaluation (cf. Dalluege & Franz, 2008, pp. 46–47). Organisations have to prove that they fulfil these criteria by composing a self-report to be confirmed by means of external reviews (cf. Dalluege & Franz, 2008, p. 47). In other words, LQW is a combination of self-evaluation and external evaluation (cf. Tödt 2008, p. 109). In the end, there is always a final workshop for the elaboration of development goals for which the organisation itself is responsible (cf. Zech, 2006, pp. 109–110).

According to Hartz and Meisel (2006), LQW has certain positive aspects. For example, it helps to point out an ‘individual reference point’ and allows for comparing organisations. To that end, the link between self-evaluation and external evaluation is useful. However, the authors criticise that organisational and pedagogical quality aspects are not more clearly separated (cf. Hartz & Meisel, 2006, pp. 81–82).

The quality system procedure in vocational continuing education

Initially, the DIN EN ISO series (9000, 9001, 9002, 9003, 9004) was not developed for the education sector but for industry, as Hartz and Meisel (2006) point out. After its revision in 2000, it also worked for companies in the service sector. A company called CERTQUA managed it to make it applicable to the vocational education sector (cf. Hartz & Meisel, 2006, pp. 66–67).

In Germany, the Chamber of Industry and Commerce (IHK) is an example of a company that offers vocational education and uses the DIN ISO series. Generally, the IHK is a representation of business interests and has five large task areas (economic and legal policy statements, expert opinions, support for vocational ← 176 | 177 → training, and administrative tasks) (cf. DIHK, 2004, pp. 6ff.) It is financed through fees and compulsory contributions from the companies that are members in these chambers (cf. DIHK, 2004, p. 12).

Hartz and Meisel (2006) point out that the revised DIN EN ISO operates on the basis of a closed loop that has five elements (e.g. responsibility of the leadership, resource management, etc.). The instrument monitors the entire process, not only the results (cf. Hartz & Meisel, 2006, pp. 66–67).

Another aspect is DIN EN ISO certification. According to Bülow-Schramm (2006), an organisation handbook with information about procedures is needed. This book and a mission statement can function as a starting point for certification. Subsequently, the certification body checks if the details correspond to the chosen norm. After a positive review, preparations are made for a certification audit. This audit contains questions based on a checklist and a multi-day inspection in the organisation. Then, there is an assessment of the results, which are summarised in a report. Additionally, there is a discussion with the company management about these results. The certificate is valid for three years and contains the documentation of the inspection (cf. Bülow-Schramm, 2006, pp. 41–42).

According to Hartz and Meisel (2006), one disadvantage of the ISO norm is the exclusion of pedagogical parts. The model ignores special features of teaching and learning processes and the fact that learning processes are barely controllable. More important for the norm is the organisation and the processes through which teaching and learning processes are arranged, even though the criteria for them are imprecise (cf. Hartz & Meisel, 2006, p. 70).

In the meantime, another DIN ISO norm, the DIN ISO 29990, has been introduced. According to Rau et al. (2011), the focus is on the learning process. The norm is for anyone who wants to achieve successful results in learning. It has a special focus on the learning processes. Quality is controlled by internal audits and monitoring of learning, learning services, and the competences of this service (cf. Rau et al., 2011, p. 1). Learning services include the determination of needs, the design of learning services, their delivery, and an evaluation of learning and learning services (cf. Rau et al., 2011, p. 9).


Both in Italy and in Germany, quality management systems are implemented as a top down process in adult learning institutions. The responsible authorities are mostly the national government, but also increasingly the European Union, which expects high-level performances to support the goals of lifelong learning, as defined in the Memorandum on Lifelong Learning (European Commission, ← 177 | 178 → 2000). For historical reasons, Germany has a wide range of national organisations of quality management in the adult education sector. After reunification in the 1990s, there was a lack of suitable providers with adequate quality services. However, government funding was not used effectively. As a consequence, adult education providers had to obtain seals of quality from independent companies. That is one of the reasons why many quality instruments exist at the local level, like the TÜV seal or the Hamburg model (cf. Everett & Müller in this book). In Italy, the influence of the European Union is stronger. The attention to adult education started after the First World War, and its main goal was to fight illiteracy, which was widespread throughout the country, especially in the southern regions. Adult education has always been characterised by a territorial approach, meaning that there are variations in adult education provision from region to region and locality to locality. In more recent years, mainstream adult education has been developed within the context of lifelong learning as presented by the EU, and very much dependant on ESF funding made available through regions, provinces, and municipalities (cf. Research voor Beleid, 2011, p. 5).

Concerning the two approaches to quality, the adult learning sector has to fulfil economic requirements in particular. In Germany, as well as in Italy, adult learning providers act according to efficiency and effectiveness. ISO certificates in particular, used in both countries, emphasise a productive organisation including measurable learning outcomes. The humanistic approach seems rather less pronounced. However, in Germany, the LQW instrument pays attention to the learning process, whereas in Italy students, teachers, and other stakeholders are included in the quality management process of higher education. Nevertheless, the interests of the learner often do not figure prominently in the quality thinking of adult learning institutions. Learners want good quality for an acceptable price. However, on the one hand, quality is characterised by objective features and hence measurable and comparable. On the other hand, learners’ subjective evaluation shows a new necessary perspective on quality. This perspective expresses the particular feature of the learning process and the role of the learner (cf. Poschalko, 2011, p. 28). Even though the learning process involves effort and inconveniences, the quality of the course may be good. It is important to note that quality also includes an efficient transfer into practice after the course and sustainability of the learning process.

Another stakeholder in the quality discussion is the adult educator. The perspective of the educator should take the learner’s perspective of quality into account. Moreover, it is a question of professionalism and skills. Apart from formal qualifications, informally acquired skills and a network in adult education are ← 178 | 179 → more and more desirable (cf. Poschalko, 2011, p. 27). In contrast to the teacher perspective, the organisational viewpoint is less pedagogically oriented. Providers are required to implement a quality assurance system in order to establish more transparency, higher comparability, and clarity (cf. Hartz & Meisel, 2006, p. 7). Therefore, they have to invest time and money to achieve higher economic standards. Nevertheless, a discrepancy exists between slashing funding and making higher demands on providers.

These perspectives show the different point of views on quality management systems. Nevertheless, it is now broadly understood that a quality management system is important to create transparency, comparable certificates, and well-working organisations in the adult learning sector. But it is important not to forget the learning process with its unpredictable educational effects. Further research could explore how a more humanistic approach can be implemented in the adult learning sector and among its relevant national and international stakeholder.


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Dalluege, C.-A. & Franz, H.-W. (2008): IQM Integriertes Qualitätsmanagement in der Aus- und Weiterbildung. Selbstbewertung für EFQM, DIN EN ISO 9001 und andere QM Systeme. Bielefeld.

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1 Adult learning commonly 'includes all forms of learning undertaken by adults after having left initial education and training' (Research voor Beleid, 2013, p. 10). In Italy, higher education is a part of adult learning, whereas in Germany, higher education is excluded caused by different divisions of legal jurisdiction and political responsibility.