March 2014


Accreditation and external site visits

Josep Manel Torres Solà - Coordinator of Quality Assessment department

On 2 July 2010 the Board of Management of AQU Catalunya (Agència per a la Qualitat del Sistema Universitari de Catalunya) endorsed the Framework for the validation, monitoring, modification and accreditation of recognised degree programmes (VSMA Framework), the aim of which was to establish the guidelines for these four processes and link them together in a coherent and logical way to provide for more effective management of the different review processes.

Over the last three years AQU Catalunya has implemented validation, monitoring, modification. These three processes have involved a considerable amount of review and evaluation activity, the outcomes and findings of which have been highly favourable (see table). Development of the VSMA Framework began to be wound down in 2013 with the design and production of the methodology for the final stage in the framework, i.e. the accreditation of recognised university degree programmes, and the planning of the first site visits to higher education institutions (HEIs) and programme accreditation.

Evaluations (2011-2013)

557 programmes validated (90% of those that applied)
286 programmes modified (94% of those that applied)
406 monitoring progress reports issued
2113 preliminary and final evaluation reports issued
162 reviewers/auditors and external experts

AQU Catalunya designs and develops accreditation in accordance with international criteria, in particular those set out in the European Standards and Guidelines (ESG, adopted by the European ministers for Education in Bergen in 2005) , thereby assuring equivalence between university degree programmes and the level of qualifications in Europe as a whole. The ultimate aim is to ensure that programmes of study offered by HEIs comply not only with the formal and/or administrative requirements laid down by the authorities, but that the “level of learning” achieved by graduates actually conforms to what is certified by the HEI.

Accreditation should:

  • Assure the quality of programmes of study that are offered, in accordance with the levels of established qualifications and the criteria laid down in the current regulations.
  • Provide valid and reliable information so that the users of the university system can make decisions.
  • Facilitate the internal quality enhancement of programmes of study and services developed by Catalan universities.

In order to achieve these objectives, the accreditation model that is being proposed is based on:

  • International equivalence. AQU Catalunya, as a recognised agency and member of the European QA organisations (ENQA, EQAR), adopts QA standards and guidelines in accordance with this status (the ESG).
  • The involvement of each HEI in the assessment of the evidence and substantiation of enhancement actions. Internal validation, or self-assessment, is a key part of the process.
  • Integration of accountability and continuous improvement and enhancement as a way of integrating both internal and external requirements.
  • Special attention to student learning outcomes as fundamental evidence of the quality of education (learning).
  • Recognition of progress/advancement, good practices and outstanding quality as the underlying basis of the principle that accreditation should promote the continuous improvement and enhancement of programmes of study.
  • Transparency and publicising of the processes and outcomes, a fundamental objective for ensuring the credibility of decision-making. This also involves the guarantee of defence for HEIs in relation to final decisions in a process of appeal.

With regard to external review, the faculty (including those of affiliated institutions) has become the organisational model as it serves as the focus around which a series of programmes of study with similar disciplinary fields is structured, and it is also responsible for the implementation and running of the IQAS as regards programme delivery. AQU Catalunya therefore proposes that external accreditation audits be made simultaneously of all recognised academic programmes being offered by a faulty. The main objectives of this proposal are:

  • The integration of programme review into institutional review.
  • To provide an overview and reinforce the strategic vision of each faculty, by promoting coherence between First Cycle and postgraduate programmes and awards.
  • To simplify external auditing and achieve economies of scale that reduce the cost of external audit (both economic and in terms of time, for both the faculty and AQU).

This approach assumes that the external audit is, in terms of its scope, separate from accreditation, which is applied at programme level. At all events, an external site visit must have been made to the faculty that delivers the programme at the time of the accreditation of any recognised degree programme, in compliance with the legal requirement laid down in Royal Decree 1393/2007. One challenge to be taken into account in the process will be integrating the different levels of study programmes offered in the faculty (First Cycle and postgraduate) into the accreditation audit, together with the individual issuance of an accreditation report for each programme.

There are fundamentally two stages to the accreditation audit process: one that is internal, in which the HEI produces a self-assessment report based on the evidence for programme delivery, and one external process in which external review/audit panel studies the self-assessment report and evidence and carries out a site visit to the faculty, with focus groups and interviews with the stakeholders. A new development is the preliminary site visit by the external review/audit panel to the HEI, the purpose of which is to come to agreement about the agenda for the site visit, identify any additional evidence that the HEI will need to provide, identify aspects of the self-assessment report that may need to be expanded upon or corrected, etc. This preliminary site visit is to ensure that everything is in place for the visit by the external review/audit panel itself.

After the site visit, the external review/audit panel issues a preliminary report that highlights the good practices and critical aspects, to which the HEI can add relevant comments and any supporting arguments or representations. Where applicable, the external review/audit panel will add the supporting arguments and issue its corresponding definitive report.

The external review/audit reports are referred to the external review panels that cover the five main subject areas, which then issue the accreditation reports for each degree covered by the site visit.

Under an agreement between AQU and the Catalan universities, in 2014 site visits will be made to 34 faculties involving the accreditation of 104 degrees, or approximately 10% of all undergraduate and Master's degrees that are running. The first site visits will begin to take place in May.


Generalitat de Catalunya

c/. dels Vergós, 36-42. 08017 Barcelona. Tel.: +34 93 268 89 50

© 2014 AQU Catalunya - Legal number B-21.910-2008