September 2009

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The experimental follow-up of the quality of new recognised degree programmes in Catalonia: an opportunity for innovation in quality assurance

Josep Grifoll Saurí - Technic director of the Quality Area in AQU Catalunya

The fact that jurisdiction over all levels of education is maintained by the state has probably limited the use of any explicit ideological discourse associated with the process of convergence in higher education. Nevertheless, there are two elements associated with this new European area that is being formed, not just at the European Union, but also the continental level, which are of a highly political nature and need to be taken account of.

The first concerns the inequivocal intention to overcome the obstacles to mobility, both academic and that of professionals trained at European universities. This mobility, which will of course call for the support of public funding, at the same time requires a significant increase in the transparency of information connected with learning processes. Mechanisms therefore need to be established to safeguard the interests of the different users, which includes enrolled and prospective students in all states, teachers, employers, etc., who are all now moving around in an international setting that is increasingly complex. In addition, one of the basic principles associated with the European standards (ESG) underlines that institutions should be able to demonstrate their quality at home and internationally.

Although not explicitly stated, this transparency leads to the enhancement of quality through greater competitiveness between institutions. In other words, students, teachers, researchers and employers will know, in greater detail and in accordance with their own preferences, which are the best national and European institutions for taking certain degree programmes or for doing research.

This call for transparency also provides new opportunities for the enhancement and internationalisation of universities, which will be able to observe more easily the work (especially the good practices) implemented by other universities.

This creates new areas for the development of international benchmarking and obviously opens up broader pathways for innovative and advanced proposals made by universities with or without a long tradition to have solid expectations of gaining greater international recognition for their quality, which complements and goes beyond what is officially laid down at the state level. In this regard, it is important for cognizance to be taken of the existence of a European-level network of registered agencies involved in the quality assurance of the universities, which contributes to trust being established in the levels of quality on an international scale.

In addition to the value of this transparency that is conducive to opening up pathways to the permanent enhancement of quality, a second intention associated with the process of convergence in Europe that is just as interesting, if not more so, is the promoting of the autonomy and decision-making capability of higher education institutions. This objective considers universities as strategic institutions for scientific development in general in Europe, as well as their being a key factor in socio-economic progress within a more local geographical context.

This process of autonomy is underscored in another basic principle of the European standards that places the primary responsibility for quality assurance in higher education on each institution itself, and this in practice logically means a greater capability to plan and design programmes. At the same time, it is highly recommended that this responsibility is enhanced through well-structured contact with students, labour market representatives and other stakeholders concerned about the correct running of the universities. There are two other basic principles of the ESG that indicate the importance of context, whether it be geographical or academic. These are that "the interests of society in the quality and standards of higher education need to be safeguarded" and "the quality of academic programmes needs to be developed and improved for students and other beneficiaries of higher education across the EHEA".

On the other hand, a university's connection with the immediate social context promotes diversity in its provision. In this regard, another of the basic principles of the ESG that states "quality assurance processes used should not stifle diversity and innovation" is relevant here.

Legislation concerning the quality of degree programmes in Spain being brought in line with the EHEA has enabled the universities to gain ground in terms of their capability to design new degree programmes, although with a significant reduction in the scope of pre-established programme structures for different recognised degree programmes. On the other hand, more intense quality assurance processes have been established, both prior to the approval of new recognised programmes and in periodic follow-ups, in order for the universities' initial commitment to the quality of their programmes to be reviewed.

Within the context of the abovementioned, what is AQU Catalunya's intention in relation to the follow-up of the quality of recognised degree programmes once they have been introduced?

a) Firstly, to effectively comply with the legal requirements that establish jurisdiction over the quality assurance of recognised degree programmes in the ex ante accreditation stage.

b) To speed up the accreditation of recognised degree programmes from the time that an application is made.

c) In particular, to make significant improvements to the information received by the users, with special attention being given to current and prospective students, on the quality of recognised degree programmes, and especially the content and structure of programmes of study.

d) To organise, at the same time, a more flexible quality assurance system for recognised degree programmes, based on the transparency of information and the possibility of reinforcing self-regulatory mechanisms.

e) And last, but not least, to generate external mechanisms that, with the cooperation of the universities, reinforce the recognition of the quality of degree programmes offered by Catalan universities.

Together with the above-described objectives, it is understood that the appropriate development of sections c), d) and e) should enable the Agency to carry out the intended innovation in quality assurance and, at the same time, attain, goals a) and b).

In June 2009, the Catalan universities, together with AQU Catalunya, started an experimental study of the abovementioned objectives, which involves both Bachelor and Master's degree programmes. In principle, each university is participating with one Bachelor programme and one Master's.

The study is based on the existence of three fundamental elements of public information associated with the follow-up of recognised degree programmes:

  • Firstly, there is the need for a clear statement that is publicly accessible of the learning outcomes associated with each degree programme, together with the resources and the curricular development of each Bachelor or Master's programme for making these attainable.
  • It is also necessary to disseminate the values of a given group of indicators that refer to the running of the programme.
  • Lastly, the universities are asked to make an assessment of the running of each degree programme, using the data provided by the internal quality assurance system.

Bearing in mind this need for transparency and the use of internal quality assurance systems, this experimental study seeks answers to the following questions:

  • What format is recommended for the abovementioned packages of public information?
  • What mechanisms has the university established to guarantee the way they are put together?
  • How are they reviewed by external quality assurance bodies, in this case AQU Catalunya, in compliance with both the regulatory requirements and those that encourage quality enhancement?

One additional question for later on is how this public information available to the different users can speed up external quality assurance processes and help progress to be made in more complete self-regulatory formulae.

From the point of view of the students, families and employers, the main focus of interest in a degree programme are the contents that the programme offers and the learning outcomes (personal and professional competences), probably much more so than any indicator values. Promoting the public nature of this type of information, together with other elements that help to define the quality of the teaching programme (such as the suitability of academic staff and staff teaching methods, to give but two examples), especially on university websites, needs to become the central focus of the follow-up process. It is therefore necessary to move beyond the system of simple lists of courses and associated credits that currently appear on many university webpages as the information on degree programmes.

Persons with an important role to play here are those on the university's governing bodies, who can ensure that action is coordinated and tools are created for implementation purposes; heads of faculty and programme coordinators, who encourage the actual carrying out of actions, and the academic staff who are involved and must produce the descriptors for their teaching work within a well defined framework. Information on this point can be based on the contents given in the degree proposal submitted for ex ante accreditation, and all that is required is an appropriate format for this to be published on the university's website. The system would obviously need to be flexible to be able to handle any modifications that are made. This will undoubtedly involve a considerable effort at the beginning, but once it has been set up the system is easy to maintain as long as the management and information processing procedures and systems operate correctly. It is fundamental to avoid an excess amount of paperwork being produced as a result of this framework of information; providing the student with information by way of a virtual environment means that things need to be explained both precisely and concisely way, and above all that the necessary information is provided.

The second part of the follow-up process takes into account a series of quantitative indicators of the outcomes, which also include the matter of user satisfaction. Publication of the values for these indicators is a delicate matter, and nothing new is revealed by stating the existence of any opposition or objections to this policy. Different arguments exist, such as the existence of programmes with an initial, more favourable context than others and therefore with better outcome expectations, or a certain fear of systematic pressure and stress being put on obtaining a more favourable numerical rating in exchange, for example, for lower academic requirements. In spite of the existence of these and other arguments, it is envisaged that changes introduced in the system and the publicising of quantitative values will be accepted and used by institutions to be more effective through reinforcement of the external recognition of programmes and the activation of formal review processes to instigate change and contribute to enhancement.

Although students and other stakeholders may be interested in following the behaviour of these indicators, it will most probably be the universities' central governing bodies, the Government and AQU Catalunya that use the indicator values to defend the university's overall objectives and the stakeholders' associated expectations. It is these bodies that will need to interpret the indicators and translate them in appropriate ways to help decision-making by the different stakeholders.

To start off with, an impartial response to the need for a follow-up system is the availability of a data-link between the webpage of each programme and the UNEIX system. This would in fact comply with the guideline established in the European standard regarding public information, which states that information should be accurate, impartial, objective and readily accessible and should not be used simply as a marketing opportunity. Moreover, the institution should verify that it meets its own expectations in respect of impartiality and objectivity.

Alternatively, the university can produce more in-depth information that explains the behaviour of the indicators at the programme level. This will make the information more accessible and the values can be more easily interpreted by users. Such an alternative should be subject to strict criteria of objectivity and impartiality, even though the standards do include the possibility of the university using the data to promote itself.

In terms of methodology, one of the challenges in the follow-up process is to gather the different degrees of satisfaction with a degree programme, in particular those of the students. It would be interesting to structure a core mechanism similar to that used to gather data on graduate employment and labour market outcomes, which is actually one of the indicators most referred to by students wanting to take certain studies.

Lastly, there is the question of producing the follow-up reports. Some universities have asked for a given format to be provided for this. Although it is important for there to be formats available, the important thing is for the university to have adequate tools to document any inconsistencies in its provision, as well as for internal decision making purposes.

Given that degree programmes have the seal of officialdom as a guarantee of their quality, it is essential for follow-up reports to be readily available to quality assurance agencies (in this case, AQU Catalunya), as they represent the interests of society and can also offer accompanying measures to overcome any shortcomings that may be detected.

Mention is lastly made of an interesting recommendation in the European standards in reference to external quality assurance mechanisms, which states that use should be made, wherever possible, of the results of institutions' own quality assurance activities. This is where AQU Catalunya needs to promote the adequate functioning of internal quality assurance systems and their products, such as follow-up reports.

From another, yet-to-be explored perspective, follow-up reports could support the external recognition of cases pending where there is a notable level to which the standards of quality have been excelled.


Generalitat de Catalunya

Via Laietana, 28, 5a planta 08003 Barcelona. Spain. Tel.: +34 93 268 89 50

© 2008 AQU Catalunya - Legal number B-21.910-2008