January 2012

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More autonomy to quality assurance agencies in 2012 in order to simplify QA processes

Josep Anton Ferré Vidal - Director

The difficulties in resolving the public finance crisis that frequently made headline news at the end of 2011 are also difficulties that the universities and the Agency are facing. It is not a matter for the on-line newsletter to make an analysis of the causes and/or possible solutions to the economic crisis or the consequences of the reduction in spending by public authorities and agencies. I would however like to mention a few of the considerations that have remained hidden beneath the cloak of continuous growth in the higher education system, which in 2011 recalled the establishment twenty years ago of four universities, three public ones, the Universities of Girona and Lleida and the Roviri I Virgili University, and one private university, the Ramon Llull University. Best wishes to these four universities, and some food for thought regarding two important aspects that need to be addressed in 2012.

The first concerns the resources available to higher education. Resources that make the higher education system more dynamic are not just economic, but also legislative, and these range from regulations that affect the governance of institutions to others that govern many of their daily activities. Given the current scenario where efforts are needed to do more with less, it has to be acknowledged that certain rules of the game, which were drawn up by policy makers with the Official Spanish State Gazette in their hands and who provide no funding (the universities are a devolved competence), are the antithesis of efficiency. I am not questioning the need for ex-ante assessment, monitoring or the periodic accreditation of degrees that are taught at universities. Nonetheless, does this have to be done the way it is now or couldn't it be simplified so that the focus is on aspects that are really more critical? Royal Decree 861/2010, which amended RD 1393/2007 and ushered in the Agency's participation in the entire cycle, enabling it to develop the VSMA Framework, also served as an excuse for the Spanish ministry to set up an ex-ante assessment circuit for Bachelor and Master's degrees that may well end up devouring us all as in the image of Saturn consuming one of his children as portrayed by Goya. And the situation is even worse for doctoral degrees! Royal Decree 99/2011 specifies not just the legal framework (who can gain admission to a doctoral degree, the duration, who can direct theses, etc.), the size and layout of the dissertation (appendix I) and the evidence for all of this to be assessed (with the software for the ex-ante assessment provided by the ministry), as in the case of Bachelor and Master's degrees, but also the assessment criteria (appendix II)! In this process, what have the agencies been able to contribute? Absolutely nothing at all. On behalf of AQU, it is not up to me to answer the question, "so can we reuse the information that was used to apply for the quality label-type recognition of programmes (mencions d'excel·lència) for the ex-ante assessment of doctoral programmes?" And I'm embarrassed to think what the answer will be.

Thought number two. With all of this we run the risk of forgetting that we are not even half way towards what European universities and QA agencies understand accreditation to be. The long and short of it is that no-one will believe that we "accredit" our degrees if we are incapable of carrying out regular and periodic external reviews. In the integrated model of the VSMA Framework that was circulated to all the universities just over a year ago, we said that we were thinking of organising the external reviews of degrees, not one by one for the more than nine hundred Bachelor and Master's programmes, but by grouping all of the degrees that are offered (i.e. at either the faculty, school or doctoral school level). The reasons, we said, were to give the process a dimension that was achievable, as in Catalonia there are around 150 different faculties and schools that, distributed over a six-year cycle, amount to twenty-five reviews per year. We also said we wanted to do it this way in order to create a dimension that had hitherto not existed in the ex-ante assessment process, i.e. to set out the degree map of courses offered by each faculty or school, analyse the interactions between Bachelor, Master's and doctorate degrees, and assist in building the degree map for each university.

At the beginning of 2012 and with over two hundred proposals for ex-ante assessment under consideration (30 new proposals and the rest re-assessments), it has become perfectly clear that a process that focuses so much on programme reviews and which appears to be designed to exhaust funding and prevent reviews of a more institutional nature is unsustainable in the long term. And between one extreme (accreditation, programme by programme) and the other (accreditation of just institutions) there has to be a point of balance that can be attained more quickly if we can avoid having to amend any of the legislation that hangs like a millstone around the neck of the stakeholders. I now have a better understanding of something I was told some time ago at the University of Cambridge, when I was explaining that, in order to reform the old university degrees, we had to wait for legislation on university reform (LRU) to provide what, from 1990 onwards, would be "specific general guidelines" for all university degrees taught up until the appearance of the new Bachelor courses adapted in compliance with EHEA guidelines: the best type of university regulation is that which is unwritten... because the research we carry out is not written, we just do it, and we do it well! The universities, executive decrees and QA agencies all endure each other with difficulty. We have come to the point where recognition is necessary not only of the autonomy of the universities, but also that of quality assurance agencies to carry out their work and to be innovative in quality management.


Generalitat de Catalunya

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© 2011 AQU Catalunya - Legal number B-21.910-2008