Just like cars have to undergo an annual inspection, higher education programmes have to be approved by accreditation organisation NVAO every six years. Without accreditation, they are not allowed to give out diplomas and their students can’t get student financing.

The accreditation is sometimes criticised: isn’t it a paper tiger? Doesn’t it cost too much time? What does such an assessment really say about the quality of the education? Politicians keep tinkering with the system.

But the assessment is “generally in order”, writes the Inspectorate of Education in its final report on the accreditation in higher education. Students can rest assured the quality of their programme is sufficient.


That is, at the time of assessment. But six years in between accreditations is fairly long. In the meantime, things can change. What if the quality goes downhill? Neither the Inspectorate nor accreditation organisation NVAO can intervene as long as a programme complies with laws and regulations.

This is what the Inspectorate calls the ‘monitoring gap’. NVAO should pay an interim visit if there are signs that the quality has drastically decreased, the inspectors believe. They would like to discuss this with the minister and NVAO.

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There are more things that could be improved, according to the Inspectorate. Last year, there already were several recommendations in the first part of the investigation. Because who actually pays for the panel of experts that assesses a degree programme? The higher education institution itself does. The Inspectorate has termed this a perverse stimulus and calls for stronger independence.

Also, how high do programmes actually aim? Experts must be able to give stricter assessments of the ‘intended learning outcomes’ of a programme. The problem is: if they don’t award this aspect a passing mark, the programme has to be shut down immediately. So things have to get really bad for the assessors to be critical in this regard. If programmes were given a do-over, this would likely cause those experts to judge things a bit more sharply.

Furthermore, at some point politicians got it into their heads that the assessment and the recommendations had to be separate from one another. An opportunity had to exist for an open talk on potential improvements between the panel and the programme. Such a ‘development dialogue’ was made obligatory in 2018. But the Inspectorate thinks this didn’t have a lot of effect. The whole thing feels forced. The Inspectorate suggests stopping this practice and prominently including the improvement advice in the assessment report like in the old days.

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Institutional accreditation

Will the government assessments of degree programmes disappear? For years now, there has been a debate on what is known as the ‘institutional accreditation’. This would mean that, just like now, the programmes would be assessed by external experts, but higher education institutions would themselves make the final judgement. NVAO would only have to check if they’re doing this properly and put its seal of approval on the whole higher education institution in one go.

One of the organisations warning about the dangers of such a new system is the Education Council. “However you design it, leave NVAO in charge of assessing the quality of the different degree programmes”, said Council Chair Edith Hooge. “The government shouldn’t only depend on the education administrators’ own judgements.”

But Minister Dijkgraaf dismissed the objections last year. He actually wanted to introduce the new system in 2025, but after the fall of the cabinet he passed the decision on to his successor.

The Inspectorate of Education is adopting a neutral stance, but does say that a new accreditation system should be at least as reliable as the old one. A national organisation like NVAO is indispensable in this regard. One of its responsibilities would have to be to check whether the members of assessment panels are truly independent.