September 2010

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The VSMA Framework: the common thread in the life cycle of recognised degrees

Josep Anton Ferré Vidal - Director of AQU Catalunya

In a recent editorial, I referred to using a magic wand to talk about university rankings, and I'd like to wave it again today to talk about the ex-ante assessment, monitoring, modification and accreditation of recognised degrees... the thing is, I can't find my wand so I'll have to make do without any tall stories! The same day (2 July) that we were presenting the VSMA Framework for the ex-ante assessment, monitoring, modification and accreditation of recognised degrees to the AQU Board of Management saw the publication of Royal Decree 861/2010 (revised text drawn up by AQU Catalunya), which amended Royal Decree 1393/2007 and devolves upon AQU Catalunya (together with the other agencies that also form part of ENQA and the EQAR) the capacity of degree programme review, a capacity that was previously exercised prior to Royal Decree 1393/2007.

It was by chance that the date coincided; the draft legislation had in fact been completed and circulated several months beforehand and everybody, i.e. the Catalan universities and the Agency, had been waiting for its official publication. Unfortunately, the delay did not serve to correct all of the decree's shortcomings, and the wording of the articles referring to the modification of degrees introduced several new ones. In the first place, because it assigns the task of endorsing modifications exclusively to the same agency that approved the ex-ante assessment. Yes, that's right. The decree says that, from now on, AQU Catalunya may carry out the ex-ante assessment of degrees, whereas all degrees assessed up until now by ANECA (the national agency) can only be modified by ANECA. Furthermore, a substantial modification is defined as being anything that modifies a programme's details in the official qualifications register. So if anybody was thinking they would get around the register, they were wrong, and they should take a good look at the decree. It's surprising the way that the student intake, the rules governing ongoing student status and mobility are all organised for (ex-ante) assessed degrees, amongst other things, and have to to be included in the registered details and that any modification must be notified to the Spanish Universities Council, and then be sent... to the agency that carried out the ex-ante assessment in the first place in order for them to be reviewed. Unfortunately, in these matters the Royal Decree seems to have been devised on the basis of an obsession to convert the ex-ante assessment process into the covert drawing up of a new degree catalogue. And this has direct consequences on the very essence of what is the quality assurance of university degree courses.

Out of the four processes that have been defined as covering the lifetime of a degree (ex-ante assessment, monitoring, modification and accreditation), ex-ante assessment is important, given that it prevents any proposals for new programmes that are insufficiently coherent from being introduced. Accreditation is the process that makes clear that proposals for new programmes have been satisfactorily planned from the academic quality point of view. The key process, however, is monitoring and modification, and the reason for this is obvious: the monitoring process helps identify aspects that need to be modified so that the degree programmes can be improved and enhanced. Proposals that have been initially approved are prevented from becoming crystallised while their accreditation is still pending. If a concise progress report (for example, four pages long) drawn up once a year were to set out the quantitative indicators that describe how the degree is running, the assessment that is made of them and the enhancement proposals that have been made as a result of thought and discussion, after six years this would not only provide an overview and enable an assessment to be made of whether the degree is being developed in compliance with the envisaged academic quality given in the initial proposal, but also whether this has been upgraded and enhanced. The assessment of the effectiveness of monitoring and the effect of the enhancement proposals will be essential for a programme's accreditation. In line with the European standards and guidelines and the Spanish regulations, accreditation is to be carried out by way of external reviews, which include site visits to the universities. The aim of AQU Catalunya is to group all of the degree courses at any given institution into the same external review, which should, amongst other things, lead to the better integration of quality assurance systems at the institutional level.

What I have summarised here, for simplicity's sake and at the risk of having left out many of the important details in the process, is the core or common thread running through the VSMA Framework for the ex-ante assessment, monitoring, modification and accreditation of recognised degrees, which was approved by the AQU Board at tthe meeting on 2 July that I referred to at the beginning.

The VSMA Framework is the ongoing development of the Experimental Monitoring Programme developed during the 2009-2010 academic year. Experts from the Agency, the heads (vice-rectors or deputies to the vice-chancellors) in charge of quality and members of QA technical units at the Catalan universities were all involved in the process of drawing up the programme.

The VSMA Framework has two essential characteristics. Firstly, the intention is to again bring together and link the four processes, with the different tasks associated with the life-cycle of a degree distributed between them. The second characteristic is a consequence of the first, namely, by uniting the processes of ex-ante assessment, monitoring, modification and accreditation, what emerges quite naturally as a key process is that of monitoring, and precisely the one that Royal Decrees 1393/2007 and 861/2010 mention the least, and that has been partially covered by the protocol drawn up by the agencies in the Spanish network of university QA agencies (REACU) and submitted by the Ministry to the Universities Council and the General Conference on University Policy with the name "Protocol for the monitoring and accreditation renewal of recognised university degrees".


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