Anne Flierman. Photo: Anne Sunderman, courtesy of HOP

NVAO Chair Flierman: 'It's good that there's a negative assessment every now and then'

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Does one make a lot of enemies when tasked with safeguarding the quality of higher education? “You can’t be everyone’s friend all the time”, says NVAO chairperson Anne Flierman. He is stepping down just as the educational certification system is set to be overhauled.

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Every study programme in higher education is subject to a detailed review once every six years by the Dutch-Flemish accreditation organisation NVAO. Every now and then, the organisation makes a negative assessment on a programme’s quality, which leads to disappointment and even anger among board members, academic managers and teaching faculty.

Anne Flierman had the honour of serving as chair of the NVAO for eight years. In this role, everyone is looking over your shoulder: the government, politicians, students, faculty, and governing bodies. “The more you accommodate one of these parties, the more the others become critical, angry or distrustful. It’s an art to maintain your credibility and everyone’s trust”, states Flierman.

Did he manage to do it? He thinks so. “Which doesn’t detract from the fact that people are usually unhappy when you make a negative assessment. On rare occasions, a board member who has been subject to such a decision will say to you: 'you people are actually right'. But I’ve also had the experience of seeing boards or even associations representing higher education institutions getting really angry with me. Sometimes we also have to disappoint the Ministry of Education. We even have to tell our staff members: 'we’re not here to be nice.”

But he doesn’t lie awake at night thinking about it: “It’s good for the credibility of the system if a negative assessment is made  theevery now and then. Then there’s more trust that everything is functioning properly when we come out with a positive one”.

Swallowing objections
But now, just as Flierman is retiring, there will be big changes to the certification system. If it is up to outgoing Minister of Education Ingrid Van Engelshoven, starting in 2024 higher education institutions will be able to assess their own programmes. The NVAO will only check whether or not they have done it properly.

Why would you ask the butcher to certify his own meat?

The system of institutional self-accreditation came about because universities pressed for it for some quite some time, but it didn’t happen without resistance. For a long time, universities of applied sciences, student organisations, and the governing VVD party were not convinced the change was a good idea. After all, why would you ask a butcher to certify his own meat? Most organisations seem to have swallowed their objections, except for the Dutch Student Union. The change still needs to be approved by the House of Representatives and the Senate.

In the new system, each institution will be reviewed every six years. Similarly to what it's done with study programme accreditation now, the institutions that are not immediately approved will receive a second chance.

That one professor
Up until now, boards could wave around a NVAO report if a study programme received a yellow card, but in the future they will have to compile such a report themselves. Won’t they be inviting a lot of difficult discussions, perhaps with their most renowned faculty members?

“It is obviously complicated to tell a professor who won a Spinoza Grant that his or her programme could do with improvements”, Flierman acknowledges. “There are enough board members who have told me that a negative NVAO review wasn’t so bad for them after all. It gave them an external carrot and stick if they thought that some things had to change in a certain study programme”.

It doesn’t hurt to shake things up once in a while

They’re going to have a lot on their plates when the responsibility shifts to institutional accreditation. “But OK, that’s what they want”, he shrugs. “Moreover, it’s time to make changes to the system. The programme review, as we do it now, has been through six cycles. It doesn’t hurt to shake things up every once in a while with a new approach”.

More paperwork
But there are other risks associated with setting up a new system. For example, just as in talent shows no one wants to be the first to be rejected, in the land of higher education no one wants to be the first to fail an institutional certification procedure. “In the future, everyone will be making an all-out effort to clear the first hurdle with room to spare”, Flierman expects. “Afterwards they have to ensure that programme reviews are properly run. There is a high risk that this will considerably increase the amount of work required. The Minister has also flagged this up.”

So, in the future, board members will have to criticise their own people, in addition to they being landed with a big pile of paperwork? “That is somewhat overstated”, he smiles. “But with this new system, board members will indeed be taking on a substantial amount of extra responsibility for their own people. They will also be called to account sooner when problems arise.”

Constantly keeping up with the paperwork is the trick for limiting workload from growing out of control, Flierman believes. “Many people in the Netherlands are currently busy with their tax returns. Those who have kept orderly records have a much easier time carrying out this task than those who have to plough through all their papers.’’

The same holds for accreditation. “As an educational institution, you have to continually make sure you can access certain information about your programmes. Luckily, I’ve spoken to a reasonable number of administrators who said 'I just have to press a button and I can see how all my programmes stand in terms of quality and standards'”

Fire brigade function
Accreditation remains a balancing act. “On the one hand, you have to make sure to respect the autonomy of universities and universities of applied sciences. On the other hand, students, tax payers and the government are best served if someone takes a hard look at programme standards every now and then.”

He attaches a great deal of value to the ‘fire brigade function’ performed by the NVAO: if something serious suddenly happens with a programme or institution, prompting society to call into question the quality of education, then someone has to be able to react quickly.

In the current system, this is rarely ever the case. That’s because the Minister of Education has to officially request that the NVAO set up a review first. “Then a year or two have passed before you can make a decision or come to some kind of conclusion”, Flierman laments. “That means that, by the time the finding is handed down, the next regular accreditation exercise is on the horizon. In our view, this fire brigade function is not very well organised in the current system.’’

It would be better if the NVAO would get the opportunity to enter into a dialogue with an institution of its own accord if something is going on. Certainly not for the smallest or slightest deficiency, he insists, but only if a really serious problem arises. “A typical response from umbrella organisations is to say ‘that’s very nice in theory, but there have to be adequate safeguards in place’. That means that these are the kinds of discussions we face in the years ahead.”

No one-size-fits-all approach
He also has the impression that universities are generally more critical of external reviews than the universities of applied sciences. According to him, a partial explanation can be found in the dynamic between teaching and research. “Research accomplishments are usually extremely important for the career prospects of faculty members”, he says. “But for the outside world, it’s primarily teaching that determines how people evaluate an educational institution.”

So yes, he does see differences between professional and academic streams of higher education. “But you can’t use a one-size-fits-all approach for educational institutions. There are universities of applied sciences that are reluctant and others that are quite open, and there are universities that are exceptionally transparent and others that are much more distrustful.”

No lecturer thinks 'I’m going to do a bad job teaching today'

All in all, Flierman feels he can retire with an easy conscience. In his view, the quality of higher education in the Netherlands has reached a high standard across the board. “It would have been that way even without the NVAO. Actually, I don’t know a single lecturer who goes to work in the morning thinking: I’m going to do a bad job teaching today.”

At the same time, some form of external review – or even the bare existence of one – stimulates educational institutions to do their best to design curricula that deliver high quality teaching. “A negative NVAO review does have an impact on your reputation.”

Baby-sitting service
Flierman considers it a privilege to have been the chair of the NVAO, but it is now time for other activities. “I’ve worked hard my whole life, mostly in managerial positions. I’ve always taken great pleasure in my work, but these were also intense times. So it is good to be able to slow down and do things at a calmer pace.”

For the time being, he will remain involved with Nuffic, the Dutch organisation for internationalisation in education, and as a regulator for Landschap Overijssel and Koninklijke Visio, an expertise centre for the blind and visually impaired. His sons are particularly looking forward to “grandpa’s baby-sitting service”.

What is accreditation?

Quality standards certification
Study programmes in higher education are subject to certification every six years by the Accreditation Organisation of the Netherlands and Flanders (NVAO). Only programmes that are approved are allowed to grant degrees. Students in those programmes can also apply for student loans. New study programmes have to be approved before they can start operating.

How does accreditation work?
Expert panels receive information from the study programme and also speak to administrators, teaching faculty and students. They examine the level of theses, the curriculum, facilities and other things. Ultimately, they hand down their decision. The NVAO then gives its stamp of approval. Where necessary, a programme is given one or two years’ time to repair deficiencies.

Do many study programmes receive such a period for repair?
That used to happen more frequently in the past. Currently, about five percent of study programmes receive it. It's rare for a programme to be completely rejected. If there is any threat of that happening, the institution usually chooses to cut their losses and closes the programme entirely before the NVAO gives it a red card.

Is accreditation a lot of work?
Critics certainly think so. That’s the reason the institutional quality assurance assessment (ITK) was devised. Universities and universities of applied sciences use this to show that their own system of quality assurance is functioning properly. That way, it is not necessary to check it for every programme every time, which makes the accreditation exercise a lot lighter. An ITK is valid for six years, just like an accreditation.

What is the difference between an ITK and an institutional accreditation?
Even with an ITK, all programmes must be certified by the NVAO every six years, but the process is lighter. An institutional accreditation is different: that's when the NVAO certifies the quality standards of an entire university or university of applied sciences. The idea is that the institution can then safeguard the quality standards of each individual study programme itself.

Written by Hein Cuppen and Evelien Flink

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