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Cererea ARACIS de inscriere in ENQA – pozitia Ad Astra

To: European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education

Re: Membership application of the Romanian Agency for Quality Assurance
in Higher Education (ARACIS)

4 May 2009

Dear Sir/Madam,

We are writing regarding the recent re-application for ENQA membership of the Romanian Agency for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ARACIS). Our Association is an active, politically independent NGO representing Romanian academic researchers based in Romania and abroad (see Science 322: 1183-5 (2008), for an independent overview of our activities and impact). We would like to draw your attention to several factors which, in our view, make ARACIS unfit for the accreditation, evaluation and quality control in Romanian higher education. In particular, we have identified serious problems in the following areas:

1. Quality and independence of ARACIS members.
The Agency’s Council was first seeded (June 2006) by Romania’s Upper House of the Parliament, Ministry of Education and the Rectors’ National Assembly (each entity directly appointed 5 members; the selection criteria are not known). Ten more members were then recruited following a call posted on the Agency’s website only, just one week (18 September 2006) before its closure, again without clear selection criteria. This raises doubts as to the independence of the present ARACIS members, and might explain why many of the country’s best academics are not amongst them. Since the Agency is now functioning autonomously, we think it unlikely that this situation will change in the foreseeable future.

2. External reviewing
It is unclear whether all universities evaluated so far did undergo an international reviewing process: of the 15 evaluations available on the ARACIS website, only 5 include international reviewer reports. In this minority of cases, only one international reviewer is employed. Moreover, of the 15 international reviewer reports (including those which are not available) 6 are authored by Romanian researchers working abroad, and 5 by reviewers from a single institution (Hochschule Konstanz HTWG Germany). The mechanism used for choosing these particular reviewers is not disclosed.

3. Track record of the Agency
It is clear from the above that the Agency lacks transparency (both in recruiting its members and the external reviewers) and that its assessment procedures are not followed uniformly. In addition, ARACIS evaluations consistently failed to reveal a number of serious problems plaguing Romanian universities. These include nepotism, plagiarism and a lack of administrative and financial transparency, and undermine the very foundation of a credible, dynamic and competitive academia. They have been documented in studies of civil groups such as Ad Astra [1] and the Coalition for Clean Universities (CUC) [2], and it has also been officially recognized in the Report of the Presidential Commission for the Elaboration of Policies in Education and Research [3]. CUC realized and compiled independent evaluations of forty-two Romanian public Universities out of a total of fifty-six [2], including some of those reviewed by ARACIS and, at variance with the latter’s reports, found evidence for:
– nepotism. The CUC report found University departments where as much as a third of faculty members are family-related (husband/wife, or parent/child). Many more cases of such conflicts of interest have been documented by the civil society over the years [4].
– plagiarism is also widespread, widely reported by the media and independent reviewers but sanctions are seldom applied by the universities. The findings of the CUC report indicate that regulations concerning plagiarism are completely ignored in 71% of Universities. To our knowledge, no reference was made by ARACIS in any of its reports.
– administrative transparency manifested in the refusal to make available public information, as required by Law 544/2001 (62% of Universities), the frequent absenteeism of lecturers from courses and/or the non-availability of information regarding time/location of courses (28% of universities), the lack of a real participation of students in the decision making process (79% of Universities), the lack of financial transparency (38% of Universities), the existence of proven cases of fake diplomas/degrees having been issued in the last 10 years (10% of universities).

It is clear that Romanian higher education suffers from deep failures of ethical conduct, quality control, and administrative and financial transparency, and indeed it is consistently ranked last in Europe. In our view, this does not constitute a reason for lenience towards the quality of ARACIS; on the contrary, it is imperative in this context that ARACIS play a central role in defining standards of good practice where they do not exist, and in verifying their rigorous implementation where they do. However, we find no evidence that this has happened or that it will.

In conclusion, it is our view that ARACIS suffers from several serious weaknesses, which hamper its proper functioning and are unlikely to be corrected. We believe these make it incompatible with the European values and ethical and administrative standards which ENQA and its members stand for, and we cannot recommend its adhesion.

With best wishes,
On behalf of the Ad Astra Association of Romanian scientists,

Octavian Voiculescu