Every six years, the NVAO inspects all higher education programmes. A commission of independent experts check, among other aspects, the quality, facilities, and level of teaching on offer.

However, sometimes this process encounters resistance. Critics argue that it is too complex, and question whether the commission really needs to ‘split so many hairs’, arguing instead that it would be better to apportion a degree of trust. In other words, accredit the whole institution in one go, allowing it to ensure things continue to run smoothly.

Universities have been lobbying for years for such a system of ‘institutional accreditation’- a system that Minister of Education Ingrid van Engelshoven also approves of. With such high-level approval, this could definitely happen in the future. Yet, whilst NVAO chairman Anne Flierman sees the possibilities, he also warns against unrealistic expectations.

Met name universiteiten voeren al jaren een lobby voor zo’n ‘instellingsaccreditatie’ en minister Van Engelshoven is er ook niet tegen. NVAO-voorzitter Anne Flierman ziet mogelijkheden, maar waarschuwt ook voor overspannen verwachtingen.

Reduction in workload is illusion

portraits employees NVAO
Image credit: NVAO

Whilst it is tempting to think that such a system will lead to a reduction in work pressure, according to Flierman, this is an illusion: “Institutions remain obliged to let external experts accredit their education programmes periodically, following European guidelines. You can leave it to the NVAO or take care of it yourself, but in any case, it has to be done.”

According to the NVAO chairman, the system does not have to change drastically in order to decrease work pressure. “The only thing that truly helps, is to keep the dossiers in good order all the way through. If you have to do your tax declaration in March and only then start sorting out the shoebox with the receipts, this is much more work than when you stay on top of it each month. Quality assurance is exactly the same.”

The way study programmes are accredited now

Higher education programmes are audited every six years on many aspects, for example, the final grades of students and the facilities provided. A panel of experts visits such institutions to carry out these audits. Subsequently, the NVAO makes its decision and, if there is something wrong, in almost all cases, the programme concerned is given the opportunity to improve within one or two years.

Universities and other higher education institutions can also partake in an ‘institutional audit’ (Instellingstoets Kwaliteitszorg, ITK). In this case, the NVAO assesses whether the preconditions within the entire institution are met: is it well administered, is quality assurance in place? When institutions have successfully completed the ITK, their separate programmes will be subjected to a lighter assessment. Whilst this procedure is often confused with ‘institutional accreditation’, it is indeed something else.

And what about quality agreements? In order to access the millions of euros within the new student loan system, universities and other higher education institutions have to agree on quality agreements concerning how this money is spent. The NVAO checks if conditions are met, and whether the agreements in place are fit for purpose.

Extra effort

Moreover, Flierman suggests, institutional accreditation might even cost more time: “You can’t accredit an entire education institution lightly. Ultimately, we want to know three things: what policies are in place, does the institution self-regulate well, and what does this look like in practice within the individual education programmes? You still need audit reports to do so, which demonstrate how things are being monitored and which improvements have been implemented.”

In addition, he expects the NVAO will continue to carry out spot checks. “Imagine that an institution has 75 education programmes. Then you do want to subject a few of those to closer inspection: what did you do here exactly? Perhaps you want to inspect all education programmes that lead to a recognised professional qualification, such as medicine. You also want to give extra attention to programmes that are subject to rapid growth or strong change, etc.”

Taking all things into consideration, Flierman thinks that the accreditation of institutions can be stimulating. “Education institutions and their Executive Boards will make an extra effort – just imagine that they won’t get through it! It is important for their reputation. Now, if on occasion an education programme is rejected or has to go into a ‘repair period,’ one thinks: These things can happen. It will be much more painful when in the future, we will have to say: Generally speaking, you are not sufficiently assuring quality.”

Reason for concern?

However, can education institutions handle the responsibility? In a step towards full institutional accreditation, education institutions can already apply for the ‘institutional audit’ (Instellingstoets Kwaliteitszorg, ITK). This is a general audit at the institutional level: is the level of self-regulation good? Do employees dare to pull each other up on the quality of education? If higher education institutions and universities get through this, then their separate education programmes will get a lighter assessment in the years to follow.

Painfully, one out of three institutions did not make it through the ITK during the first round (2011-2014). However, even some of the institutions that initially got through had some of their education programmes subsequently rejected, indicating that their quality was not up to standard. Is that not reason for concern?

Flierman does not think it is that bad: “They have learned a lot from the experience”, he says. “It was a new test, and some institutions had to get used to it. Now it goes better. It seems that, at most, one out of ten institutions does not make it through this test in one go.”

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Little surprised

Another ‘finger exercise’ for institutional accreditation are the quality agreements concerning the spending of the millions of euros sourced from the study loan system. Universities and other higher education institutions make plans for how they can use this extra money to improve education. However, the NVAO has also rejected many plans and, if we take this into consideration, is it then still a good idea to say: “Go on, monitor your own quality?”

“We too were a little surprised”, Flierman admits. “Many institutions performed well, but others less so. You can conclude from this that not all of them are ready for institutional accreditation. They really have to sort out their business.” However, he does want to commission research into why it is that so many institutions failed to get through. “To this end, we will also examine our own role in this process.”

Cat amongst the pigeons

Leaving this aside, you often hear complaints that university education is assessed less often. It has no priority: you can hardly make a career with it anyway. Should you then still ‘put the cat amongst the pigeons’ and say: from now onwards, you can monitor the quality of your own education?

Or take, for example, the law studies education programmes, who only just managed to get approval in 2012. When the NVAO gets less insight into these programmes, what will be their future?

Flierman finds these all to be legitimate concerns: “I don’t believe that all universities will instantly begin self-accreditation. But be aware, if institutions become completely responsible for their own programmes, they will put in more effort into monitoring their own quality. I also have to say that in the previous round, there were many more doubtful cases than now. The law studies programmes are doing demonstrably better. The same is true of the humanities: this time around, fewer programmes will be judged inadequate than six years ago. This is because of an actual improvement in quality. Indeed, this week in our annual report, we note that approximately 95 percent of all education programmes now receive a positive evaluation without problems.”

Shift responsibility on to another

What then, despite the many doubts, is the argument in favour of institutional accreditation? Flierman suggests: “The acknowledgement of administrative responsibility. You can no longer shift responsibility on to another. That helps.”

In one swift movement, you could also monitor the quality of research, he remarks. “Perhaps you could also consider PhD trajectories during university audits. That would be a logical choice.”

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Stability

Whilst administrators may consider something like this to be a positive challenge, researchers and teachers will be weary of such a development – yet another new system. Would it not be better to opt for stability, so that everyone knows what to expect? “Continuity can also be of great value”, Flierman confirms. “Perhaps we should precisely not change anything at all for a while. However, after two or three rounds, these kinds of systems always tend to lose their edge, because everyone knows the drill. You cannot escape having to make adjustments every now and again.”

“Thus, we can definitely debate the positives and negatives of institutional accreditation. Besides, soon we may not have a choice anymore, because the education sector itself is going to change. How will we assess quality within a more flexible education system, or one in which the concept of an ‘education programme’ will have become watered down?”

In the current discussion on institutional accreditation, it seems we ‘are going to build a new floor on an existing house’, Flierman explains. “It is interesting to pose the question of how we would build such a structure if we had to start from the ground up. At NVAO, we do such exercises, even if it is only because we find this worth while as professionals.”

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Fire brigade

Concluding, is he in favour of institutional accreditation? “Yes, but you do have to think it through carefully, and not rush into anything. Imagine, a university or another higher education institution has been accredited, and a few years later there turns out to be maladministration or other significant problems. Then the ‘fire brigade’ has to be able to come to the rescue. Trust is fine. The downside is that, when that trust turns out to have been misplaced, you have to be able to intervene much quicker.”

In the healthcare sector, for example when something goes wrong in a hospital, intervention can occur in a very short timeframe. “Perhaps something similar should be possible within higher education. Now it sometimes takes several years before the minister can truly take action.”

According to Flierman, the strengthening of ‘ownership’, which you sometimes hear, is not a good argument in favour of institutional accreditation. “That is a fashionable term. To whom does this education programme actually belong? To teachers, students, or society? That in itself is already a very difficult question. I prefer to speak of responsibility rather than ownership.”

Flanders already has ‘institutional accreditation’

In Flanders, institutional accreditation already exists under the name ‘institutional review’. Whilst new programmes are still assessed individually, both at commencement and after six years, subsequently, they fall under the quality assessment system of the institution, which is assessed every six years.

According to Flierman, the benefit is that universities and other higher education institutions are given more responsibility by the government: “The assessment of programmes becomes more customised, because everyone gets to determine for themselves how it should be approached. However, it has not led to a reduction in workload.” Although, he adds, people experience less pressure.