In peer review an external group of experts (peers) is invited to assess the quality of different fields of the organization. Peers are external but work in a similar environment and have specific professional expertise and knowledge of the evaluated subject.
A common standard for a European Peer Review Procedure is described in the European Peer Review Manual, currently available in fifteen languages. For this project, which focuses on the Validation of Non-formal and Informal Learning (VNFIL), the project partners developed a specific manual.
To support the VNFIL providers and to ensure transnational transparency and comparability, a quality framework with nine ‘Quality Areas for VNFIL’ has been developed. These Quality Areas are based on an inventory of national quality systems on VNFIL in France, Portugal and The Netherlands together with the Cedefop ‘European guidelines for validating non-formal and informal learning’ (2015) and information from VNFIL partners in Austria, Slovakia and Lithuania. The peer reviews were evaluated continuously by the responsible partners.
International perspective appreciated
VNFIL providers did expect that the ‘international’ aspect of the project would provide additional and valuable perspectives on their questions.
The transnational aspect of the project was valued highly. Peers and organizations mentioned that it is of great interest that there was an emphasis on international educational systems. Also, through the international peer review, it becomes clear that partners have no business self-interest and can thus give very open insight into his institution without competition.
The peer review method allows a very deep insight in the visited organisation. The peers ‘view from outside’ and ‘different perspective’ were seen as a great benefit. The fact that the peer was someone ‘on the same level’ was also highly valued. Besides that, the openness and honesty of the peers and the trusting and collegial relationship were appreciated.
The process of dealing with concrete challenges on the workplace had a motivating and inspiring effect on all participants. Therefore, the feedback of the peers was often experienced as a confirmation. Some of the recommendations of the peers could be implemented concretely or encourage a longer-term development.
The participation in the European project and the opinion of the international peers was often used in the context of marketing and public relations. As an example of optimal dissemination in this sense, “Frauenstiftung Steyr” has won the “State Award for Adult Education” partially due to participation in the peer review project.
Common goal: improving quality
Peer review offered the organizations the opportunity to get in touch with other content experts in a similar area of responsibility, both nationally and internationally. National experience has been gained in other educational subsystems. Internationally, completely different education systems have been explored.
In the international environment, the peers experienced a close relationship with the visited institution, even though they were situated in a different environment. Peers explain that this was a result of ‘already knowing everybody’ and the fact that every institution had the same goal: improve quality.
However, with regard to international cooperation, the peers noticed that it is a requirement to have some knowledge of the country, the educational system and the institution before conducting the peer visit. Without this knowledge, it’s very difficult to understand the underlying relations and it will cost a lot of (extra) time.
Transnational peer review: clear added value
In transnational peer review, there is the possibility that countries and systems that are less developed in terms of VNFIL can learn from more advanced ones. For example, if there was less development of VNFIL due to less favorable policy prioritization, it can be quickly remedied by looking at the practice of those who have continued the development process. These experiences must then also be transformed to the political level.
Outcome of the Peer Review VNFIL Extended project is that both national and transnational peer review has a clear added value for the further development and alignment of European validation systems.
National networks for peer review are introducing the peer review framework in their countries. The project partners recommend the European Commission to stimulate further development of an international infrastructure for transnational peer reviews.
In the project European Peer Review for VNFIL, eleven peer reviews were carried out between November 2016 and May 2017. The VNFIL-providers participating in the pilot phases came from six different European countries, France, Slovakia, Lithuania, Portugal, the Netherlands and Austria. All providers experienced that peer review has had a positive impact on the development of their VNFIL provision and helped them to align in a transnational approach.