portraits employees NVAO
NVAO chairman Anne Flierman Image credit: NVAO

It had been rumoured for a while in the tertiary education sector: the NVAO committees that are reviewing the degree programme improvement plans with which Dutch universities and universities of applied sciences are seeking to fulfil their obligations under the quality agreements have rejected quite a few of these plans.

Utrecht University of Applied Sciences and Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences are two tertiary education institutions known to have failed NVAO’s assessment, and it is rumoured that Delft University of Technology, HAN University of Applied Sciences, Hotelschool The Hague and Iselinge University of Applied Sciences have also seen their plans rejected. Utrecht University escaped this fate, having seen its plan approved two weeks ago, although it was a close call.

Erasmus University’s plan has not yet been assessed; this is expected to happen sometime in late 2019. The university was granted permission to submit its plan later, since the investment plans are largely tied up with the university’s new long-range strategy, which is currently being developed. The plans will not be able to be assessed properly until this strategy has been finalised.

More than expected

Anne Flierman, the Chairman of NVAO (the Accreditation Organisation of the Netherlands and Flanders), would not name any education institutions, but was willing to confirm that NVAO’s review committees have issued negative recommendations on 10 of the 23 plans audited so far. “That’s more than we expected. I’ll be up front about that.”

If NVAO’s board chooses to uphold the negative recommendations issued by the committees, and if the Minister for Education does, too, the tertiary education institutions will be given a year to improve their plans, after which they will be reassessed. “Which is not to say that the plans are useless and might as well be tossed into the bin right now. Some of the revisions won’t require much time or much of an effort. Other revisions will.”

What is proving to be the most common issue?

“Prior to drawing up their plans, many institutions’ executive boards feared that the discussions with their representative bodies would be hard, but those actually seem to have gone very well. In many cases, the supervisory boards were also involved in the decision-making process very properly.”

“What many institutions struggled with was the requirement that the quality agreements must contain clearly defined plans and measures to be implemented. This requirement was included in the Education Sector Agreement the Minister concluded with the universities, universities of applied sciences and student organisations in April 2018. An institution that merely states that it will improve its study facilities will be given a hard time, because that is not specific enough. You’re expected to specify what exactly you are going to do in order to improve those study facilities.”

“In addition, we are coming across plans that are not quite long range enough. We asked for plans covering the entire 2019-2024 period. We did say that the plans for 2023 or 2024 didn’t have to be extremely detailed. Moreover, institutions are given the opportunity to revise their plans later if they find they do not work. And obviously, plans must be revised in consultation with the institution’s representative body.”

“But on the other hand, you can’t just say, ‘I’ll put the money we got when student grants were abolished in a huge jar and I’ll think about how to use it later.’ You must actually allocate the money to a clear purpose, and the plans must be clearly defined, particularly for 2019, 2020 and 2021. We have found that universities of applied sciences are having some difficulty making sure that their long-range plans are in line with their annual budget forecasts.”

Were any institutions penalised for ‘decentralising’ their obligations?

“At the request of the institutions, we included a provision in the Education Sector Agreement stipulating that executive boards may pass on some of the funds made available after the abolition of student grants to their faculties or institutes, and that they are allowed to ask them to draw up plans themselves, on the condition that the faculties in question involve their representative bodies in the decision-making process and that our committees will also assess this plan at the faculty level. We’ve come across institutions that passed the money on to their faculties and said, ‘It’s their job to figure out what they are going to do with it.’ We won’t accept that.”

Some critics are saying the assessments are quite harsh.

“When we were negotiating the Education Sector Agreement, the student organisations demanded that the money that became available when their grants were abolished be used to genuinely improve the teaching students are receiving. Which is why our assessments are a little like audits involving checklists. But yeah, when a plan isn’t sufficiently satisfactory yet, we can’t say that we trust things will be all right in the end. Either the plans are satisfactory or they aren’t.”

How do you ensure that some committees aren’t hasher judges than others?

“The NVAO-appointed coordinators supervising the committees discuss their findings with each other and try to deal with these matters in a uniform manner to the maximum extent possible. In addition, we regularly consult the chairpersons, who also share their experiences with each other. Recommendations are subjected to a second opinion by our officers, who ask themselves: Would I have arrived at the same conclusion? Is it clear how the committee arrived at its conclusion? And finally, NVAO’s board issues an opinion of its own, which involves questions such as: Isn’t this one committee being much pickier than others? Is this negative recommendation justified? Or, the other way around: Didn’t this committee go too easy on that institution?”

How many times have the committees’ recommendations been overruled?

“So far, twice. But I’m not going to go into detail on that.”

Were the institutions given too little time to draw up their plans?

“No, I don’t think so. The first assessments were performed half a year to three quarters of a year after the publication of the Education Sector Agreements and the assessment protocols. Everyone was given sufficient time. Of the institutions that submitted their plans early, Maastricht University was given a positive recommendation by the Minister, while Utrecht University of Applied Sciences was not.

“We have yet to assess 31 plans, and given the number of negative recommendations we have issued so far, we have decided to provide the institutions with more information. Today we are sending the institutions a letter in which we explain where many institutions are going wrong, just like we’re doing now.”

Is that fair to the institutions that have already been assessed?

“Those who are still drawing up their plans may benefit from the additional information. But many governors and employees of universities and universities of applied sciences are sharing their experiences by e-mail or WhatsApp, anyway. None of which alters the fact that they are expected to draw up proper plans. We will assess those plans in the same way as the plans we’ve examined so far. We’re not changing the rules of the game after the fact. That wouldn’t be fair.”

Are you expecting this to result in fewer rejections?

“I hope so. We are carrying out a procedure to which the various student organisations and students all agreed. At the end of the day, we will all benefit from these plans being solid and from the funds obtained from the abolition of student grants being properly used to improve our degree programmes. That’s what it’s all about.”