Education Council criticises plans to let universities conduct their own quality inspections

Photo: DUB, pixabay, shutterstock

The Dutch government monitors education from primary school to university. The questions orienting this work include: is this quality education? What are taxpayers paying for? Can society trust that pupils and university students are being properly instructed?

When it comes to higher education, all programmes are inspected once every six years by an accreditation organisation called NVAO, but there is a lot of resistance to this system. Critics say it takes time and effort, and the vast majority of courses are good enough anyway. Research universities like UU are particularly fond of the idea that accreditation should be left to them. The government would see if the institutions have their own systems and policies in order, and then it would be up to them to assess their programmes themselves.

And they were heard. Several ministers have verified whether the policy can move in the direction of 'institutional accreditation' instead of 'programme accreditation', as is already done in Flanders. Even NVAO itself foresees few problems if this model were adopted.

The biggest advantage to this model would be that educational institutions would be able to focus more on the aspects they themselves find important. Besides, it wouldn't make that much of a difference in practice: at the end of the day, expert panels are the ones making the judgment. That is so now, and that would continue to be so in the new system. That's why Utrecht University is in favour of institutional accreditation. 

However, in its new advice document, titled Essentie van extern toezicht ("The Essence of External Supervision", Ed), the Education Inspectorate reveals it has some caveats, saying this is a decision that shouldn't be taken lightly. "No matter how you organise it, let NVAO keep inspecting the quality of individual study programmes", states chair Edith Hooge, who is also a Professor of Educational Management at Tilburg University. "The government shouldn't depend on the judgment of education administrators alone". 

What is the danger of institutional accreditation?
“It would be a major change, so one has to think it through carefully. The tenor of our advice is: no matter how you organise it, make sure that NVAO directly supervises the quality of education in practice. You can see how the institution organises its own quality assurance, but how do you know that the system works? We have to be careful not to create a reality that only exists on paper. That is why an external party should always assess the programmes.”

But in Flanders, they already have institutional accreditation.
“That's right. But in this advice document, we're asking some fundamental, principled questions. Why do we monitor the programmes? How should we go about it?"

You're therefore in favour of keeping external accreditation in place. Are you against institutional accreditation altogether?
“We're saying that external supervision must regularly assess the quality of each study programme, with supervision at board or institutional level on top of that.”

So you don't think it's enough to look at individual courses on a random basis?

So then you are against institutional accreditation?
“No, we're just saying that external accreditation must always make a full quality assessment of the individual programmes, even if a new accreditation system is introduced. Besides, they can obviously give an opinion about the vision on education quality and the policy of the institution as a whole".

There is a pilot on institutional accreditation going on right now, coupled with a lighter assessment of the degree programmes.
“We would not argue for a lighter inspection. We have to talk to teachers and students and hear about the quality of their education. It also seems to me to be a professional desire, if I may call it that. We need someone else to make a critical, well-substantiated judgment. That may also provide starting points for improving education, but that is not the essence of supervision.”

According to your advice, the goal of supervision is not to improve education. Why not? It is helpful to hear the advice of the expert evaluators.
“There are many ways to promote the quality of education, such as having different study programmes work together or holding critical discussions with colleagues. There is also the National Education Agency (Dutch acronym: NRO), which makes all sorts of didactic research available. That's really important, don't get me wrong, but the first roles of external accreditation are monitoring and assessing. We shouldn't let ourselves get snowed under".

You advocate clear, legal standards for the supervision of schools and secondary vocational education institutions. Why not for higher education?
“Things are different in higher education. The law establishes hardly any substantive quality standards for higher education. That's not necessary, because we have the judgment of experts who assess the programmes instead. If the experts take similar courses in different institutions as a cluster, then the standards are pretty evident".

Sometimes politicians try to force a change through accreditation. For example, English-taught programs will soon have to explain to NVAO why they're not taught in Dutch.
“External accreditation is focused on content, students' final level, testing, the quality of the teachers and so on, but it's also based on the level of language proficiency. That's how that would fit in".

But then isn't accreditation being used as a means to counteract the "anglicisation" of Dutch higher education?
“The experts must verify the quality of education. The language of instruction is another matter altogether, it's not part of accreditation, although the Education Inspection writes a report called 'The state of Education' every year. There, the question of language would fit in, and the politicians can make choices. But we say: 'keep the accreditation pure'".

UU rector Henk Kummeling reacts: 'Don't disqualify it in advance'
"Utrecht University looks favourably at the possibility of changing the system in the direction of institutional accreditation. Just like the Education Council, we prioritise an all-transparent assurance of educational quality when we analyse this question, but we have come to a different conclusion.

The current system, based on the accreditation of individual study programmes, focuses too much on monodisciplinary programmes within a single faculty. This poses a problem for interdisciplinary education and collaborations between institutions, as these programmes are difficult to classify according to the national clusters, and by panels whose expertise is too one-sided. New programmes, as well as revised programmes, fall ever more often into this category.

Our educational offer is already very diverse. If the growth of Education for Professionals and the developments surrounding micro-credentials count, then we need more room for manoeuvre to achieve effective quality assurance than what a system based on traditional programme accreditation can offer. Institutional accreditation does offer such room and doesn't by definition lead to institutions "accrediting their own programmes", as it is too often said. That's an oversimplification of a system that works with independent panels of experts, not to mention it also shows little trust in NVAO's knowledge and expertise as a supervisory authority.

Switching to institutional accreditation would be a complex change, which is why all parties involved are thinking this through. The constructive criticism of the Education Council is very welcome, but we would like to use this to further refine the interpretation of institutional accreditation rather than disqualifying this form of quality assurance in advance".
Accreditation in the Netherlands today

Quality inspection
Higher education programmes are assessed by the accreditation organisation NVAO every six years. Only approved programmes are allowed to issue diplomas. Programmes also need to be NVAO-approved in order for students to receive financing. New programmes must also obtain a green light from the NVAO to start operating.

How does the assessment work?
Panels of experts obtain information from the programmes and then talk to administrators, teachers and students. They evaluate the level of the theses defended, the curriculum, the facilities and much more before finally issuing a verdict. Programmes that pass receive the NVAO stamp of approval. Sometimes programmes are given one or two years to improve certain aspects.

Do a lot of programmes get this 'recovery period'?
This used to happen more frequently in the past than it does nowadays. About 5 percent of all study programmes are given some time to improve their ways. It is rare for a programme to be really rejected. If this threatens to happen, usually universities prefer not to risk it and shut down the programme before NVAO even has a chance of showing it the red card.

Is it a lot of work to assess the quality of a study programme?
Some people think so. That's why the ITK, Dutch acronym for Institutional Quality Assurance Review, has been devised. Through the ITK, a research university or university of applied sciences can show that its own quality assurance system works well. That way, not all programmes need to be checked every single time, reducing the amount of work involved. Just like 'regular' accreditation, an ITK is valid for six years.

Utrecht University passed this exam in 2012 and 2018. What is the difference between the ITK and institutional accreditation? 
After an ITK, individual programmes are still assessed by the NVAO every six years, only the test is lighter. Institutional accreditation is different in that the NVAO approves an entire university. Then, the university itself can assess the quality of its programmes.