An important distinction is made in European higher education between higher education institutions (HEIs) and alternative providers of higher education (APs). Both kinds of institutions offer educational opportunities with learning outcomes at higher education level, as defined by the EQF level descriptors 5-8. Both kinds of institutions can also be equally reviewed in terms of quality and level of their programmes in light of the European Standards and Guidelines (part 1) and ECTE’s Standards and Guidelines.
However, a higher education institution (HEI) can award formal degrees with protected degree nomenclature recognised by local authorities, an alternative provider of higher education (AP) does not award formal degrees. The ECTE recognises this important distinction and aims to determine only the quality and level of learning opportunities at EQF levels 5, 6 and 7, and not the status of institutions nor their ability to award formal degrees.
To ensure full transparency, this distinction is reflected in the ECTE Review Directory and in the ECTE Certification Framework. All ECTE institutions are required to follow the ECTE Guidelines for Institutional Status and Qualification Nomenclature to avoid information that could be misleading for potential students and stakeholders.’
In the vast and varied scene of theological education, not all contexts are the same. There are, for example, some countries where theological seminaries are authorised to award formal degrees, but there are also countries where governments do not have provisions to recognise formal degrees in the discipline of Christian theology. Further, there are some countries where it is possible for a theological institution to become a private university and operate as a higher education institution, but there are also countries where national legislation does not foresee the possibility of private universities at all, or where there are requirements in terms of student numbers and finances are such that the opportunity is beyond the reach of smaller institutions.
This varied context is further complicated by the fact that not all providers are the same either. There are institutions that are registered as charity-based organisations, there are university theology departments, there are providers with validation arrangements with a university, there are institutions that have contracted franchising partnerships with foreign universities, there are nationally recognised research centres, and many more nuances in status, classification and organisational standing.
This variety can be bewildering and clearly, even though the ECTE processes and standards of accreditation are the same for all accredited institutions, a ‘one size fits all’ approach will not work.
One important difference is reflected in the ECTE Accreditation Directory concerning the status of providers. These reflect a categorisation in the European Higher Education Area that groups providers of higher education opportunities on the basis of their formal recognition (or not) by local authorities and their ability to award formal degrees. The two categories are:
- Higher Education Institution (HEI). These institutions (such as universities) are recognised by local authorities to award formally recognised degrees.
- Alternative Providers of higher education (AP). These institutions are not recognised by local authorities as being able to award formal degrees.
In recognition that the simple distinction HEI/AP may not accurately reflect the nuances of many situations, the ECTE Review Directory provides space for additional notes and other arrangements. These are related, for example, to specific local contexts, to institutions that operate outside of Europe, to alternative terminologies and/or to validation agreements with European or other third-party universities.
As a cross-border, subject-specific quality assurance agency, it is beyond the scope of the ECTE to determine the status of institutions and their ability to award formal degrees. This is the prerogative of local authorities and, as mentioned above, it is not always an available option to all providers of theological education.
But it should be clear that ECTE accreditation equally determines the quality and level of learning opportunities of both kinds of providers. Even though the ECTE-accredited qualifications issued by APs do not have the status of formal degrees issued by local authorities, this does not necessarily impact the level and quality of the qualification, which have been accredited according to the same standards as HEIs and has been equally subjected to quality control measures that are regulated by the European Standards and Guidelines.
In brief, ECTE accreditation of HEIs and APs alike ensures that the learning opportunities are at the same level, that the learning outcomes are the same as defined by the European Qualification Framework, and that the quality of graduates and of their achievement are comparable.
This should give confidence to international registrars to consider applications from graduates of both HEIs and APs in ECTE-accredited programmes as they seek opportunities of academic progression.