Quality assurance agencies need to reinvent themselves

Two decades of Bologna-driven programme accreditation has proved that universities can be trusted to assure their quality, says Michèle Wera 

December 15, 2020
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Complaining about the endless cycle of quality checks faced by universities is a pastime that unites academics internationally. They may be surprised to know many of my quality assurance colleagues share similar concerns. Some even wonder whether we still add significant value to higher education. Twenty years into the Bologna process, the question is whether quality agencies like mine have become obsolete.

The Accreditation Organisation of the Netherlands and Flanders, known as NVAO, is currently preparing for its next cycle of programme accreditation. But Dutch universities have already faced three cycles of programme-level peer reviews, with a high level of success, since it was founded in 2005. In addition, many have weathered two rounds of institution-level reviews, the vast majority of which were highly favourable.

The process has been productive, I believe, and lessons have been learned. Universities now know what needs to be done to meet the quality criteria. Nevertheless, it is hard to escape the uncomfortable feeling that our job well done means that agencies have served their purpose. Aside from a few reflections on the challenges of dealing with the aftermath of the pandemic, I don’t expect to see anything too exciting during the next round of programme accreditation.

Instead of fine-tuning existing procedures every six years, maybe it is time to rethink the fundamentals of external assessment. Other agencies across Europe could have similar conversations.

Dutch universities want a more trust-based approach that focuses on institution-level assessment, rather than the individual programmes. This shift is a clear trend in the northern and western parts of Europe, and no doubt the other regions will follow suit. With a few exceptions, I believe there is a basic confidence in programme quality that should indeed allow universities to take peer reviews into their own hands. Past performance should determine how to proceed.

The pandemic has upset many accepted conventions of higher education, forcing innovation at a pace that was previously thought to be unachievable. As universities quickly adapted to a hybrid of online and in-person education, quality assurance agencies have had to redefine their modus operandi accordingly. Initially, peer reviews followed by campus visits of expert teams were postponed in the Netherlands; by the summer, most procedures were being rescheduled in a digital setting. But maybe quality agencies should have decided to sit out this one entirely? And if they can do it this year and universities can still deliver a high-quality offer, a broader re-evaluation of these accreditation visits should follow.

Every crisis provides an opportunity for new insights. We ought to recognise that both universities and quality assurance agencies have done a good job; the agencies should take their part of the credit for this and move on.

Some agencies have already recognised this and responded by expanding their activities beyond their main objectives. Of the nearly 50 agencies across Europe, many have begun to divert resources towards secondary and vocational education, postgraduate specialist training, non-educational sectors and even more activities abroad. However, this diverts attention away from their core business and is not something to be encouraged.

The alternative to such diversification, of course, is a substantial reduction in agencies’ workload and workforce, but we should not run from this. For years, NVAO has shown a remarkably high turnover of junior staff, but the time has come for fresh blood to gradually replace those who have been running quality agencies for too long. Novel ideas, innovative concepts and out-of-the-box thinking are required.

That said, the best way forward may look rather familiar to those of us who have been around from the start. It is not naïve or complacent to suggest that we should return to the pre-Bologna era in which universities are fully responsible for peer-reviewing their educational programmes, with quality agencies focusing on institution-level assessments. Such a back-to-basics approach would reduce the bureaucratic burden that comes with programme accreditation and allow universities to enjoy the trust that they have clearly earned.

Michèle Wera is a senior policy adviser for the Accreditation Organisation of the Netherlands and Flanders (NVAO) in The Hague.

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Reader's comments (2)

Another strategy is to use a risk-based approach, and vary the scope of assessments according to the risk and the track-record of each provider. An elite university that has been around for 100 years usually does not need to demonstrate that it has mastered the basics of QA, whereas a three-year old provider with weak academic leadership might. When approaching each case I would ask my teams: 'What are we worried about with this provider'? If the answer is 'nothing' - move on! Michael Tomlinson (ex TEQSA)
"Some even wonder whether we still add significant value to higher education." "... the agencies should take their part of the credit for this and move on." Ye Gods we need more honesty like that carried in this article. Mature institutions, and yes particularly Russel Group institutions, never needed the likes of the QAA. The principle of Quality Assurance has never truly partnered Higher Education (HE). It has only ever been an arm of Government with a chip on its shoulder. If QA actually worked in the UK, how come we still have fly by night, over the shop 'HE' providers in the UK??

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