The Vatican’s struggle to quality control Catholic education

As Pope Francis urges Catholic HE to change, the Holy See’s quality agency evaluates close to 300 ‘ecclesiastical faculties’ worldwide – with just four staff

March 22, 2020
Source: Getty

Step off Rome’s Via della Conciliazione, the grand boulevard that leads up to St Peter’s Basilica, the sacred heart of world Catholicism, and you will find something rather more prosaic: the offices of a higher education quality assurance agency.

Since 2007, the Holy See’s Agency for the Evaluation and Promotion of Quality in Ecclesiastical Universities and Faculties has been attempting to evaluate the nearly 300 “ecclesiastical faculties” in the world that issue degrees in the Vatican’s name – with just four members of staff.

Speaking to Times Higher Education in Rome – before Covid-19 all but shut down the city – Andrzej Wodka, Avepro’s president, explained the agency’s mission in sometimes mystical tones.

Yet he acknowledged the practical scale of the challenge and said he had been counting the days since he was appointed president in 2018.

“We need to grow, we need to enlarge our office,” said Professor Wodka, an ordained priest and professor of biblical ethics at the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome. In his native Poland, the body that accredits universities has 90 members of staff, he pointed out.

Set up after the Vatican joined the Bologna Process – a largely European effort to standardise things like degree length – Avepro’s remit is to check the quality of these “ecclesiastical faculties” that typically offer theology, philosophy or canon law. These are sometimes stand-alone institutions, or part of broader universities, sometimes explicitly Catholic, but not always.

The Catholic church has had to end its “isolated” ways, he said, and enter the form-filling world of quality assurance.

“This is a new thing,” he added. “There was always care for quality. But the excellence of research or teaching was not measured the way we do it now.”

In 2014, Avepro became a member of the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education – a seal of approval from a kind of quality assurance agency for quality assurance agencies.

As of September last year, Avepro had completed 128 evaluations across nine countries, although all of them have been in Europe, which accounts for two-thirds of the faculties in its remit. Only now is Avepro starting to “go global” and assess ecclesiastical faculties outside the continent, first of all in India, explained Professor Wodka.

Still, the agency lacks the sticks – the ability to withdraw funding or stop an institution issuing degrees – often available to national regulators to enforce changes.

The accreditation of programmes that lead to a degree issued from the Holy See is actually the responsibility of another body, the Congregation of Catholic Education, which has oversight of Catholic universities as entire institutions, Professor Wodka said. “This is not our business,” he acknowledged. Nor does the Vatican generally fund ecclesiastical faculties worldwide.

So far, Avepro has never failed an institution it has inspected – although the point is that these faculties get better at improving quality on their own, Professor Wodka said.

With its stretched resources, Avepro is trying to set standards for Catholic higher education just as Pope Francis has started an attempt to transform the church’s approach to teaching.

In 2018, the pontiff proclaimed a major shake-up of Catholic higher education, which Professor Wokda said “starts a completely new phase”.

“Unfair competition” between universities and individual researchers who care too much about their own reputations is discouraged, explained Professor Wodka.

The shake-up also encourages distance learning and a shift away from dogmatic teaching. “Philosophy and theology permit one to acquire the convictions that structure and strengthen the intelligence and illuminate the will...but this is fruitful only if it is done with an open mind and on one’s knees,” according to the Pope’s foreword from the 2018 decree on ecclesiastical universities and faculties. “The theologian who is satisfied with his complete and conclusive thought is mediocre.”

Those studying at ecclesiastical faculties no longer “want to be treated like empty recipients to be filled with something”, Professor Wodka said.

Historically, these faculties were “almost 100 per cent dedicated to the clergy” and the training of parish priests, but now educate a far greater proportion of lay students, creating pressure for change, he added. Professor Wodka said his “soul” was “weeping” at the lack of job opportunities in some countries for lay graduates of such faculties.

Still, Avepro is now undergoing another inspection by the ENQA, which has issued repeated warnings about the agency’s “lack of resources”. In a self-assessment last year, Avepro admitted that the “issue of limited resources will stay in its agenda for years”.

Professor Wodka acknowledged this might hamper Avepro’s bid to remain a full member of ENQA, which is set to issue its judgement in the summer. Quality assurance is a “new reality” for the Holy See, he added.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Pontiff approved: Vatican faces HE quality control issue

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