Author: Pieter Caris, NVAO

In 2016 and 2017, NVAO carried out a first round of institutional reviews. These reviews of the Flemish universities and university colleges were intended to replace the system of external assessments at programme level. The institutional review consisted of an assessment of an institution’s implementation of its educational policy on the one hand, and of an advice on an institution’s conduct of ensuring quality at programme level on the other hand.

For the institutional review, NVAO developed the Appreciative Approach. It is the leading philosophy, mindset, style or attitude in the development of the methodology, and the design and execution of the procedures. Not the standards from the assessment framework, but the context of the individual institution and the model chosen by the institution (for education policy) make up the basis for the assessment. The focus is on what is present, and what is possible, and not on what should or could be. The aim is to embed and stimulate good practices within the institution, and to examine where (elements within) the educational policy can be strengthened, deepened or intensified. At the same time, the Appreciative Approach aims for a continuous dialogue between the committee and the institution, and a great openness of both parties. After the exploratory phase, an in-depth phase will follow in which the review panel, through a critical review of the educational policy model, shares insights with the institution, returns opportunities, and creates added value. In this way, the institutional review contributes to the further development of the quality culture in the institution.

The first round of institutional reviews showed that institutions are successfully implementing their educational policies and that they are ready to ensure the quality of their programmes themselves. Universities and university colleges have found the right balance when developing a central policy that is rooted in decentralised initiatives. Eighteen institutions received a positive assessment, four of which with conditions. For all of them, this positive outcome results in a six-year extension of the accreditation for existing programmes.

NVAO has published an Overview report on the institutional reviews-2017 that summarises the general findings of the institutional reviews. The institutional reviews clearly demonstrate that institutions actively respond to societal challenges and the regional context in their educational policy, e.g. the challenges of a metropolitan context or the influx of students with language deficits. Diversity in all its facets is high on the agenda. Tailor-made guidance is seen as the key to success, not only for students who are struggling, but also for excellent students who are challenged through honours programmes. Several university colleges are strongly committed to graduate education at EQF 5 level in order to establish a better connection between talent and the labour market.

In its overview report, NVAO also concludes that institutions should pay attention to external benchmarking, to the feasibility of their ambitions, and to the systematic monitoring and aggregation of data at the institutional level. Institutions should make their success indicators for (interim) follow-up explicit, not only focusing on processes, but also on results. Collaborative learning and exchange of good practices may in some cases be intensified.

The new quality assurance system in Flanders is based on trust and dialogue, and gives more autonomy and ownership to the institutions. Each institution has to set up a conduct to confirm programme quality. To inspire them, NVAO developed a Quality Code with quality features that are based on the ESG. The outcomes and results of the own conduct should lead to a decision by the institutional board about the quality of each of the institution’s programmes.

With the strengthening of the autonomy of the institutions comes an important responsibility regarding public accountability. For each programme, institutions should publish strengths and challenges/opportunities, and inform all stakeholders about remedial actions and follow-up. External, independent perspectives brought in by stakeholders, by experts and, of course, by peers, undoubtedly contribute to the quality of the programme. Institutions are, however, still struggling to find the right fit of roles, timeframes and levels for including these perspectives. In general, it can be stated that the less frequently the external perspective is looked for, the wider this perspective should be. It is expected that the initial workload caused by the new system will drop, once the conduct is fully operational.

After three decades of external quality assurance at programme level, the institutional reviews have given a boost to the quality culture within institutions. All stakeholders have experienced the step towards institutional reviews as a very positive evolution. In the future, institutional review will focus on four elements: (1) the link between the educational policy, the institution’s vision and societal challenges; (2) the implementation of the policy, and subsequent evaluation and improvement of effectiveness; (3) the conduct developed by the institution to confirm programme quality; and, (4) the quality culture within the institution. It will enable institutions to show that they deserve the trust and autonomy given to them when it comes to ensuring the quality of individual programmes.

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