10 July 2019 • HOP, by Melanie Zierse
Institutional accreditation is a step closer
Minister Van Engelshoven is keen on the idea of allowing educational institutions to audit their own degree programmes. But only in addition to the existing checks by the NVAO (Accreditation Organisation of the Netherlands and Flanders). She will present concrete plans in mid-2020. Every six years the NVAO visits degree programmes to check the quality of the education. That inspection costs a lot of time and money, complain the research universities in particular. The workload is already so high, can’t it be simplified?
They have been trying to reduce the amount of paperwork for years now, but an earlier attempt (with the introduction of the institutional audit on quality assurance) has been totally ineffective according to the research universities. So they came with a new plan, the so-called ‘institutional accreditation’. This system would allow institutions to audit their own degree programmes. The NVAO will only assess whether it takes place correctly.
The previous cabinet set up an experiment with institutional accreditation, but the governing party, the VVD, in particular was not in favour. It resulted in a compromise: three research universities and three universities of applied sciences wanted to audit their own education, but the NVAO still had to check each individual degree programme on a few points. The pilot startedin September 2018.
To gain better insight in the ‘experienced regulatory pressure of quality assurance’, Minister Van Engelshoven commissioned a study into it. She informed the cabinet of theresultson Friday. It showed that above all the workload was the result of an accumulation of rules. Staff in higher education not only need to consider the formal legislative frameworks, but also the rules at institutional, faculty and degree programme levels.
Furthermore, they have trouble with the open terms used in legislation and regulations. ‘It demands self-confidence to define the scope to organise quality care in a way that is not too taxing’, according to the minister. And it is precisely that self-confidence that is lacking, states the report: ‘They pull out all the stops with an accreditation. It demonstrates that these institutions lack confidence in their own vision and quality.’
Moreover, the ‘unpredictability’ of the NVAO panels and the continual changes to the requirements contribute to the experienced regulatory pressure. The minister is going to enter discussions with the accreditation organisation to look into how the inspections can be given a more predictable character. She also wants to clarify how degree programmes can read between the lines.
Additionally, Van Engelshoven has commissioned a similar study into the experiences with institutional accreditation abroad. She also presented those results in her letter. According to the minister, one of the positive effects is that institutions feel like they ‘own’ the audit. She believes that is ‘a better guarantee of quality than a finely meshed whole of externally imposed rules’.
Institutional accreditation also appears to help reduce the experienced regulatory pressure, because the efforts are perceived as more worthwhile. But in reality, the workload will not decrease, far from it, it could even increase, states the report.
There are risks too. How can you be sure that the experts assessing the degree programmes are truly independent? And it remains to be seen as to whether the institutions’ boards will intervene in time if it appears a degree programme is falling short. There is also a chance that quality assurance will be organised at a central level, instead of at degree programme level. Moreover, it will make it increasingly difficult to compare similar degree programmes at different institutions.
‘Looking at the results from the study, I am positive about introducing institutional accreditation alongside the existing forms of accreditation’, stated Van Engelshoven. To prevent the committee from feeling a lack of freedom to be critical or holding their cards close to their chest, she believes it is important that there are back-up options. She expects to have concrete plans ready by mid-2020, in which she will also consider the risks.