September 2011

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Challenges of the academic year ahead

Josep Anton Ferré Vidal - Director d'AQU Catalunya

What will happen over the next (2011-2012) academic year? I like this question because it's a bit like just having acquired a new sketchbook or notebook. And what about a new agenda as well, perhaps? Let's hope not because the context is still the same! With AQU having reacquired its jurisdiction over the ex-ante accreditation part of recognised programme review in July 2010, last year was one in which many new processes were set in motion at the Agency. Well, this is a half-truth actually as they weren't entirely new because the Agency has been involved in the ex-ante accreditation of Masters degrees since the Decree of 2005. Neither was the new process a new one for the Catalan universities. They haven't stopped since 2007 up to the present in a process that has led to the total renewal of their provision of Bachelor and Master's degrees. Many of these undergraduate degrees – the bulk of the programmes being offered, or around two-thirds of them – started running in September 2009. That means that now the courses are half way through. And the special review panels will leave to one side their proposals for ex-ante accreditation and modification to read the first lot of monitoring reports, involving planning, quantitative indicators, analysis, enhancement proposals, repetition, regularity, the list goes on... Time now has to be spent doing this. A new notepad, because there are only a few pages at the end of the old one, but the agenda is the same one because many undergraduate degrees being run for the first time are still only half way through and there are still final year projects, work experience placement, etc. to be initiated. And that work is new.

Likewise, the monitoring process that we want to carry out this academic year, which is just beginning, will be the same... but different! Firstly, because this year the challenge will be for all degree programmes to produce a follow-up report. Last year we proposed that only a fraction of the approximately one thousand degrees offered by Catalan universities would do this, and in the end we achieved a figure of 200 Bachelor's and 100 Master's course, out of which the review panels will be able to evaluate one hundred. This is very good. But next year, the aim is to include all university degree programmes and with a more complete series of indicators than those used last year. This is the second goal. The data will come from the UNEIX information system, as these are the data that we already have although it still needs to be processed, understood and analysed for decision-making purposes. Right now the Agency is working on the format and the interface that will be made available to the universities. In the last week of July, with the holidays just around the corner, we were in discussions about this with the Directorate General for Universities. The wish on both sides is to provide the universities with a unique system of stable, quantitative indicators, using the data from UNEIX, which can be used in both the QA activities developed by AQU and course programming activities, which are the responsibility of the Directorate General for Universities.

Above all, however, the universities need to feel that the indicators are theirs', that they belong to them, because ultimately they do. The challenge is how to ensure that this information gets read and reaches the entire university community, that it reaches all teaching staff and not just senior management staff in the university with academic responsibilities, and that it assists in decision-making processes. This is the key question. Everyone knows that decisions need to be made, but in lean times everyone expects somebody else to make the decisions, which is ultimately just passing the buck. Nevertheless, the curious thing is that there is little point in blaming someone else – it doesn't solve anything and anyway it's better to put one's energy into finding solutions or at least to show that we're looking for them.

A good system of follow-up indicators will also enable the universities to better explain what they do and how they do it. The editorial of the previous e-newsletter gave a breakdown of the good graduate labour market outcomes in Catalonia. But this is not enough. We have to be able to also explain how long students take to graduate. And how many teachers are needed for a degree to be taught, and how many are also professionally involved in training university students to become teaching assistants, etc.

It is of primary importance to explain not just what university students do, but also how they do it, particularly at a time when the issue of priorities has been raised in society, so processes need to be developed through which higher education institutions can demonstrate their accountability, including accountability for the investment of public money... and this can be done together with the monitoring process, because quality assurance for accountability purposes is fully compatible with quality assurance for enhancement purposes. The wording in italics is from the EHEA's Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance (ESG).

Gosh, we've got work to do this coming year (2011-2012)!


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