Swedish exploration of Flanders, välkommen!20/04/2020

How staff-mobility encourages new perspectives on quality assurance: NVAO (FL) and UKÄ (SE) share ideas and insights.

Although the working areas of UKÄ, the Swedish Higher Education Authority, go beyond those of the NVAO, one can notice many similarities in the quality assurance systems of Sweden and Flanders. The Swedish system has comparable components such as institutional reviews combined with programme evaluations and thematic evaluations. 

"So it was quite obvious that we needed to set up a mutual exchange of knowledge and experience between the two agencies. We met each other at the ENQA Leadership Programme. There, the idea was born. The staff-mobility project within the Bologna Peer Support Group for Quality Assurance provided us the opportunity and funding", Charlotte Elam from UKÄ explains. After a visit to the Swedish counterpart earlier that month, it was NVAO’s turn to welcome Charlotte in the NVAO-offices in The Hague, just before the COVID19-pandemic has shut Western-Europe down. 

'We often get stuck in our own little bubbles.'

Charlotte lives in the beautiful city of Stockholm and works as a Senior Project Manager Quality Assurance at UKÄ. Next to evaluating the quality of higher education, UKÄ analyses the development, is responsible for official statistics about higher education and monitors compliance with laws and regulations among universities and university colleges.

What would you describe as the main advantage of staff mobility? 

“The NVAO and UKÄ share a rich history of external quality assurance procedures and have developed extensive experience. There is already a long cooperation between our agencies and we meet often at different meetings. We have much in common, but are still very different. We have different national settings and legal frameworks, different resources. But we still have to relate to the ESG’s and have similar procedures. So it is refreshing and has been great to reflect on daily practice in assessment procedures and share ideas on how we interview, how we organise visits, on the training of experts and the writing of evaluation reports.” 

What can Flanders learn from Sweden in the field of quality assurance? What advice would you give us? 

“You ask this question a little too soon. I'd rather let all those impressions and insights sink in for a while. As a quick win, I would advise you to focus more on online meetings and online preparations with the panels of experts. Yes, it is less travelling, but above all it’s a way of making connection that enhances the quality of the process. You have more frequently quick check-in meetings to support experts in your panel. When you invest more in consultation and conversation beforehand, it creates more openness between experts during the assessment.” 

'It is refreshing to reflect on daily practice in assessment procedures.'

What advice do you take home? 

“We are now halfway through the current cycle of our QA-system and starting to prepare the next cycle. In recent years, I got much more interested in how we do things within different procedures and started thinking about our own efficiency and internal quality assurance. I learned a lot from the Flemish approach the last couple of weeks. I got so many questions from your colleagues. It’s a good opportunity to think about how we do things. I am really hoping we can continue this collaboration, also by online meetings, e.g. to talk more about online training of experts, a very topical issue these days. 

If I have to pick one thing for now, then it would be that NVAO has no fixed format for reports, so reports may look different not only for different types of QA procedures, but also for the same of kind of procedure. In our present cycle we have very strict templates to make sure all areas under review (and all criteria) are covered in interviews and reports. The new Flemish framework and the Appreciative Approach is inspiring as it seems to allow the panels to be more ‘free’. For some of our activities, such as our institutional reviews, I think we might have to consider focusing even more on content and less on templates or format.” 

Flemish QA-system: no fixed formats & criteria

“The Flemish quality assurance system has moved away from all kinds of fixed criteria, formats and templates. We installed the Appreciative Approach, keep assessment procedures as simple as possible and tailor them to the context of the individual institution or programme to make them fit for purpose 

Basically, quality assurance - and also the ESG (The Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area, ed.) - is really about three questions: “What do you intend?", “How will you implement it?”, and “How can you make sure that what you intended is also achieved in the end, as you planned it?” The three questions are in fact guiding all processes, and what we would prefer is a holistic review by the panel in order to answer those questions. 

In the past, panels often felt limited by standards and criteria. They might notice something interesting but were not able to include it in their discussions and final report because it was not part of the criteria. Inversely, they might feel the need to comment on a criterion that was in fact not applicable in the programme under review. In the new system, the panel and the institution get control of the topics of conversation. Therefore, NVAO does no longer use a fixed format for the critical self-reflection of each institution or programme, just as there is no imposed structure for the review report.” 

‘The most important tools are probably the tools we do not have.’ - NVAO

One last advice for colleagues who will be leaving on a staff mobility in the (near) future? 

“I’m one of the people that have been writing the UKÄ self-evaluation report for the ENQA application. So I had a lot of time to reflect on how we carry through our different procedures. At this stage it’s great to get some time away from my own desk and get some inspiration. It’s not only what I learn or what I see, but also the fact that I get some space to think and reflect on things. That was for me personally a big gain. We often get stuck in our own little bubbles. 

Urge people to see it, not only as an opportunity to learn about good practices, but also to get some time to reflect on your own work. Do not underestimate this.”