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Experimental programme for monitoring the quality of university degree programmes in Catalonia: the basis for an adaptable, effective and efficient quality assurance mechanism

Josep Grifoll Saurí - Head of Quality Assessment department

The profile of new degree programmes is an essential element of public information

I'd like to start off this article by referring to the Dearing Report on the future of higher education in the UK, which was published in 1997, and in particular the recommendation that it makes regarding the importance of clear and explicit information for students so they can make appropriate decisions regarding the studies they wish to take.

This recommendation in practice means there is the need for clear degree programme descriptors that enable students to compare between different courses being offered prior to enrolling in a specific programme. There is thus a requirement for both learning outcomes and the means whereby these are achieved and can be demonstrated to be explicit.

AQU Catalunya has sought to prioritise this recommendation in this monitoring programme. We have to bear in mind that the current regulatory framework governing recognised degrees in Catalonia has brought about an important renovation in academic programmes. The design of new qualifications has given the universities greater freedom to develop programmes and has therefore led to greater diversification in academic provision. Furthermore, the introduction of a system whereby learning outcomes are specified has brought about a change in teaching and learning strategies, together with the evaluation of outcomes, which prospective students need to know about.

External quality assurance has often been associated with the setting in place of complex bureaucratic systems. AQU Catalunya's commitment to this experimental programme is based more however on upgrading the production of information that is useful for the users. Public information on academic provision is beneficial for students, and it is also useful for constructing information systems that are an aid for teacher groups, both for designing and putting into practice new study proposals and ways to enhance them.

Public information on academic programmes obviously helps employers and professional bodies to understand the different disciplines and contributes to the self-regulation of academic provision in favour of proposals of a higher quality.

In this experimental programme, the working basis for the Agency is respect for university autonomy. AQU Catalunya naturally acts as an advisory body and recommends good practices for information that is made publicly available, although it positively adheres to the idea of universities designing their own information policy according to their operational structures and objectives.

Up until now, the experimental programme has shown that universities are making an important step forward in providing publicly available information on their academic programmes. Although this objective may seem easy to achieve on paper, the fact is that this process is costly for different reasons. Transparency calls for the quality assurance of an extensive amount of information. In addition, this is provided by numerous source units, many of which are different in nature. The quality of information logically depends on issues as important as the definition of criteria for formats and content, communication strategies and the setting up of processes whereby the information itself can be constantly updated.

Reinforcement of the accountability mechanisms

The publication of indicators (scoreboards) is an increasingly widespread practice. Examples include the Obama Administration's guidelines in favour of freedom of information and the European Commission, which recommends similar proposals for the higher education sector. The idea behind this is that democracy calls for accountability, and accountability in turn calls for transparency.

The monitoring of a programme's quality must ensure that the abovementioned commitment to learning is satisfactorily complied with. The publication of quantitative indicators helps to reinforce this idea. In actual fact, the processes set in place by AQU Catalunya for programme review already include the indicators proposed in this experimental programme, and the majority appear in data tables that are included in the Agency's public reports. What is changed is that, with the monitoring of degrees, these indicators will be updated on an annual basis and they will need to take account of all recognised degree courses.

AQU Catalunya's experimental programme includes the indicators that were agreed to together with the other agencies in Spain, the Catalan agency suggests, however, that universities add new ones that set in context their own particular academic context and situation.

Monitoring involves a close look at what goes on and what has gone on, and yet it is also an opportunity to anticipate the future. The introduction of new indicators can give impetus to change by promoting innovation and through the introduction of new teaching practices. In this regard there will need to be awareness throughout the higher education system in Catalonia of international trends and developments in university education, and consideration will need to be given to the degree to which the defining of indicators is either centralised or decentralised, which political actors are key to this definition process, and, of course, the opening of discussion on purposeful development of the concept of quality in Catalan universities over the next few years, with the understanding that this concept is not only dynamic, but that it also needs to be increasingly sophisticated to deal with the increasingly complex social demands being placed on it.

New quality assurance mechanisms for the universities

Better public information enables the different actors to verify a university's commitment to the education that it provides, although this needs to be accompanied by available instruments that enable the community to participate, especially in formulating quality enhancement proposals.

Bearing in mind that the universities have undertaken the work of designing quality assurance mechanisms, the experimental programme tackles the evaluation of these mechanisms by checking that they operate correctly, looking at the quality of the public information they provide, how they deal with enhancement opportunities and how indicators are used in decision-making.

The success of internal quality assurance is essential in that it places the main responsibility regarding this matter on the university and at the same time reinforces its autonomy. As a matter of fact, a large part of the activities of agencies in the UK, Finland and Norway are based on the external review of how these internal quality assurance systems operate.

Two additional considerations

In relation to the way that programme content is dealt with, there needs to be control over modifications made to university courses. AQU Catalunya's proposal at this experimental stage is for universities to suggest the thresholds above which the use of external quality assurance mechanisms would be advisable for programme modifications that are considered to be "substantial".

Ideally, the way that modifications are dealt with should comply with the principle of protection of the users, students and other stakeholder groups, in relation to the quality of academic programmes. Given the existence of an external accreditation mechanism for programmes, the best solution may be a model that minimises the amount of red tape between the different authorities, with this only being reserved for extraordinary cases. If this proposal goes ahead, it will obviously need to be appropriately combined with the setting up of a register in which each university sets out the modifications and that is open to public review.

Lastly, a consequence of this overall initiative in favour of transparency needs to be the development of a register of university degree courses that gives an overview of the situation in Catalonia.


Generalitat de Catalunya

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

© 2010 AQU Catalunya - Legal number B-21.910-2008