Allocation of 40 percent of the abolished student grants is still unclear

One in three universities and higher education institutes does not yet have an approved…

All’s well that ends well? The Accreditation Organisation of the Netherlands and Flanders (NVAO) ordered an evaluation of the recent process. For board member Anneke Luijten-Lub, this is nothing less than logical: “We’re asking educational institutions to assure the quality of their programme. Then we obviously need to do the same in the case of our own work. This is the first time that we’re involved in a procedure of this kind, so we wanted to see how things went.”

Quality assurance is what NVAO is all about. Which aspect of this process was a first for you?

“Normally speaking we call on the programmes once every six years. This time round, we had to visit all 54 educational institutions with panels of experts. We hadn’t done something like that before, and the institutions were also tasked with a new kind of assignment. This asked a lot from both our organisation and the educational institutions.”

What’s the key message that can be drawn from the evaluation, in your view?

“Both reports confirm that a great many people are working hard to maintain education at a consistently high level of quality. The quality agreements were shaped by a community of students, lecturers, participation councils and administrators. I was delighted to see this reflected in the evaluation.”

Was there any room for improvement though?

“No one dropped the ball as such, but some new lessons could be drawn here and there. Before the evaluation, we were in close contact with the Netherlands Association of Universities of Applied Sciences, the Association of Universities in the Netherlands, the Ministry of Education and the student organisations. There was less interaction after everything got underway. We were too busy with the evaluations. We could have paid more attention to mutual communication.”

If no one messed up, where did all these rejections come from?

“You shouldn’t actually see them as rejections. There’s nothing wrong with having to submit a new plan. In fact, that’s why this option was included in the process. I didn’t pass all my exams in one go either.”

The educational institutions will be receiving millions to improve their education programmes. Surely you could expect them to submit a clear quality plan?

“The quality of the Netherlands’ education system is high as it is – let’s not forget that. But some institutions thought: let’s draw up a plan in broad outlines, which we can then recalibrate from year to year. That’s a different approach to what was asked for in the protocol. As a result, some evaluations didn’t turn out quite as the administrators in question has expected.”

Are the plans still actually up to date? Hasn’t everything been upended by the Covid crisis?

“Some of the institutions will be investing heavily in student welfare, or in utilising IT within their education programmes. That also works in these extraordinary times. We don’t have to scrap everything. The institutions need to determine what they need right now to enable them to offer quality education. Maybe some of these plans need to be adapted, but that isn’t a problem. Provided they confer closely with their participation councils and supervisory board, of course.”

How well does this participation in decision-making work actually, with so many plans rejected?

“It becomes clear from the reports that the institutions put a lot of work into the plans, with a lot of different people contributing. The participation bodies were involved very closely – that’s a win in my book. As well as a basic criterion, incidentally. And allow me to repeat: the plans weren’t rejected as such. The procedure includes an opportunity to submit your plans a second time, and so far all the plans have been approved on this occasion.”

These participation councils change in composition from one year to the next. Some years, the members pay more attention to what’s going on than other years.

“Of course, we still need to pay further attention to this participation process, but the institutions have already made sizeable investments in this particular aspect in recent years. And this process also supported this trend. We need to consolidate this result.”

How do you view the difference in the participation process in universities of applied sciences compared to research universities?

“To be honest, I couldn’t say whether there are really differences to speak of. It’s difficult to say anything definite about this subject without examining it first. It can vary from one institution to the next. It’s true that the process runs smoother in some institutions than in others.”

Occasionally, no one or only a few people are interested in sitting on the participation council. Should you allow millions of euros in investments to rely on these bodies?

“My impression is that everyone takes participation very seriously. There is a strong willingness to invest in the participation process, and the institutions are regularly open to public discussions regarding education quality.”

But surely you’ve also read the accounts – of the regular criticism levied against university administrators by their participation councils?

“I base myself on the reports that land on my desk. This gives me a different picture to the one occasionally presented in the media. For example, on average, programme commissions in the Netherlands show solid commitment to their duties.”

If the student and staff members of a participation council were to tell the NVAO panels that they haven’t been involved closely enough, their institution will miss out on millions of euros. How critical could you effectively expect them to be?

“The panels were offered quite a few points of criticism. I’ve sat on a panel myself: and you do everything you can to also uncover possible points of criticism. After all, you want to base your advice on a comprehensive picture.”

Do you expect the funds deriving from the cancelled base grant to be spent wisely?

“Looking over the reports, I am fully confident they will be. We have a good base situation, but there will undoubtedly be more discussions down the road: are we still focussing on the right issues; are we achieving what we set out to achieve?”