Every study programme in higher education is subject to detailed review once every six years by the Dutch-Flemish accreditation organisation NVAO. Now and then a negative decision on a programme’s quality is handed down, which leads to disappointment and even anger among board members, academic managers and teaching faculty.

Anne Flierman had the honour of serving as Chair of the NVAO for eight years. Everyone is looking over your shoulder: government and politicians, students and faculty, and governing bodies. “The more you accommodate one of these parties, the more the others become critical, angry or distrustful. It’s an art to maintain your credibility and everyone’s trust.”

Did he manage to do it? Flierman thinks he did. “Which doesn’t detract from the fact that people are usually unhappy when you make a negative decision. On rare occasions a board member who has been subject to such a decision will say to you: you people are actually right. But I’ve also had the experience of boards or even associations of universities and universities of applied sciences getting really angry with me. We sometimes also have to disappoint the Ministry of Education. On occasion we have to tell our staff members: we’re not here to be nice.”

But he doesn’t lie awake at night thinking about it: “It’s good for the credibility of the system if a negative decision is handed down every now and then. Then there’s more trust that everything is functioning properly when we come out with a positive finding.”

Swallowing objections

However, now, just as Flierman is retiring, there will be big changes to the system of certification. If it is up to outgoing Minister Van Engelshoven, starting in 2024 institutions will be able to perform their own programme reviews. The NVAO will then only check whether they have done it properly.

The system of institutional self-accreditation came about after universities had been pressing for the plan for some time, but it didn’t happen without resistance. For a long time universities of applied sciences, student organisations, and the governing VVD party were not convinced, because why would you ask a butcher to certify his own meat? Most organisations seem to have swallowed their objections, except for the Dutch Student Union. But the House of Representatives and Senate still have to approve the change.

In the new system, each university and university of applied sciences will be reviewed every six years. And just as with study programme accreditation now, the institutions that are not immediately approved will receive a second chance.

That one professor

Up until now, boards could wave around a NVAO report if a study programme received a yellow card, but in future they will have to compile such a report themselves. Won’t they be inviting a lot of difficult discussions, perhaps with their most renowned faculty members?

“It is obviously complicated to tell that one professor who won a Spinoza Grant that his or her programme could do with improvements”, Flierman acknowledges. “There are enough board members who have told me that a negative NVAO review wasn’t really so bad for them. It gave them an external carrot and stick if they thought that some things had to change in a certain study programme.”

They’re going to have a lot on their plates when the responsibility shifts to institutional accreditation. “But OK, that’s what they want”, he says. “Moreover, it’s time to make changes to the system. Programme review as we do it now has been through six cycles in the Netherlands. It doesn’t hurt to shake things up once in a while with a new approach.”

More paperwork

But there are other risks associated with setting up a new system. For example, just as in talent shows no one wants to be the first to be rejected, in the land of higher education no one wants to be the first to fail an institutional certification procedure. “In future, everyone will be making an all-out effort to clear the first hurdle with room to spare”, Flierman expects. “Afterwards they have to ensure that programme reviews are properly run. There is a high risk that this will greatly increase the amount of work required. The Minister has also flagged this up.”

So in future board members will have to criticise their own people and they will be landed with a big pile of paperwork? “That is somewhat overstated”, he smiles. “But with the coming of this new system board members of universities and universities of applied sciences will indeed be taking on a substantial amount of extra responsibility for their own people. And they will be called to account sooner when problems arise.”

Constantly keeping up with the paperwork is the trick for limiting workload from growing out of control, he believes. “Many in the Netherlands are currently busy with their tax returns. Those who have kept orderly records have a much easier time with this than those who have to plough through all their papers.’’

The same holds for accreditation. “As educational institution, you have to continually make sure you have and can access certain amounts of information on your programmes. Luckily, I’ve spoken to a reasonable number of administrators who say, I just have to press a button – as it were – and I can see how all my programmes stand in terms of quality and standards.”

Fire brigade function

Accreditation remains a balancing act, Flierman says. “On the one hand, you have to make sure to respect the autonomy of universities and universities of applied sciences. On the other hand, students, tax payers and government are best served if now and then someone takes a hard look at programme standards.”

He attaches a great deal of value to the ‘fire brigade function’ of the NVAO: if something serious suddenly happens in a programme or institution that calls into question the quality of education, then someone has to be able to react quickly.

In the current system this is scarcely ever the case. That’s because the Minister has to first officially request that the NVAO set up a review. “Before you can take a decision on such an issue or come to some kind of conclusion, a year or two have passed”, Flierman explains. “That means that, by the time the finding is handed down the next regular accreditation exercise is on the horizon. In our view, this fire brigade function is not very well organised in the current system.’’

It would be best if the NVAO in future gets the opportunity to enter into dialogue with an institution of its own accord if something is going on. Certainly not for the smallest or slightest deficiency, he insists, but only if a really serious problem arises around programme quality. “A typical response from umbrella organisations to this topic is to say, ‘That’s very nice in theory, but there have to be adequate safeguards put in place.’ That means that these are the kinds of discussions we face in the years ahead.”

Not one size fits all

He also has the impression that universities are generally more critical of external reviews than universities of applied sciences. He thinks a partial explanation can be found in the dynamic between teaching and research. “Research accomplishments are usually extremely important for the career prospects of faculty members”, he says. “But for the outside world, it’s primarily teaching that determines how people evaluate an educational institution.”

So yes, he does see differences between professional and academic streams of higher education. “But you can’t use one-size-fits-all for educational institutions. There are universities of applied sciences that are reluctant and others that are quite open, and there are academic universities that are exceptionally transparent and others that are much more distrustful.”

All in all, Flierman feels he can retire with an easy conscience. In his view, the quality of higher education in the Netherlands has, across the board, reached a high standard. “And it would have been that way even without the NVAO. Actually, I don’t know a single lecturer who goes to work in the morning thinking: I’m going to do a bad job teaching today.”

At the same time, some form of external review – or even the bare existence of one – stimulates educational institutions to do their best to design curricula that deliver high quality teaching. “A negative NVAO review does have an impact on your reputation.”

Baby-sitting service

Flierman considers it a privilege to have been Chair of the NVAO, but it is now time for other activities. “I’ve worked hard my whole life, mostly in managerial positions. I’ve always taken great pleasure in my work, but these were also intense times. So it is good to gradually be able to slow down and do things at a calmer pace.”

For the time being he will remain involved with Nuffic, the Netherlands’ organisation for internationalisation in education, and as a regulator for Landschap Overijssel and with Koninklijke Visio, an expertise centre for the blind and visually impaired. His sons are particularly looking forward to “grandpa’s baby-sitting service”.