Fashion, ratio and accreditation 3.0 in the Netherlands

Author: Don Westerheijden

Many countries are currently discussing new quality assurance policies. Examples include: Belgium, where the Flemish institutions have shaken off programme accreditation; the UK, where a new Teaching Excellence Framework is being developed; and the USA, where accreditation is under heavy pressure to change. Discussions about a new accreditation approach are happening in the Netherlands as well.

Policy succession: four ideas

The traditional idea in public administration was that policies are rational: policies should solve social problems. You solve one and move on to the next. In quality assurance: once you’ve weeded out the bad study programmes, you can spread quality awareness. When there is awareness, you can trust self-regulation by universities and need only to audit them. That’s what Jeliazkova and I synthesized in 2002.

A good decade later, with colleagues Stensaker, Rosa and Corbett (2014),we brought that limited and optimistic idea up to date with contemporary theoretical developments. Alternative ways in which policies succeed one another are less technocratic, more open to following fashion (‘isomorphism’, if you prefer the technical term), to political struggle between government and the higher education sector (‘arms race’), or just chance (‘random walk’). We came up with the model in the first figure: one dimension is that policies may follow on their predecessors in a connected, or disconnected, way. The other dimension is about whether the issue is consensual, or politically contentious.

Figure 1

Figure 1

The four models illustrated

A major reason for developing the alternative models was not the theory as such, but finding that the ‘next generation model’ failed to explain actual developments in several countries. The next figure shows the Netherlands (NL), Norway (NO) and Portugal (PT). It’s not a test of alternative theories, but an illustration of the possibilities of the different models: while ‘next generations’ explanation applied sometimes, ‘catwalk’ and ‘random walk’ developments occurred as well.

Figure 2

Figure 2

Dutch accreditation ‘3.0’ – ratio, fashion or politics?

Since 2014, policy-makers in the Netherlands are discussing the third round of accreditation. Half-jokingly, people call it ‘accreditation 3.0’. What type of development do we see this time? Rational ‘next generation’? No. Progressive problem shifts did not take place as that model predicted. After more than 25 years of external quality assurance, academics still see it as a bureaucratic burden rather than as an intrinsic part of their professional teaching.

Following fashion on the catwalk? The minister tried to follow international trends towards institutional-level audits or accreditation. She did so, reacting to academe grumbling about ‘bureaucratic burden’. Paperwork had been an unwanted side-effect of the first two rounds of accreditation. Moving from accreditation of thousands of study programmes to accreditation of several dozens of institutions seemed a reasonable policy response. It did not count as a ‘next generation’ shift, because ‘next generation’ is about solving the primary policy problem, while accommodating grumbling academics and institutional managers was reacting to side-effects. This was perhaps necessary, because without cooperation of academe it all becomes window-dressing without enhancing quality of education.

The political ‘arms race’ explanation does not apply either: an arms race happens if universities react against government with ever-smarter avoidance of quality assurance and government tries to outwit universities with ever-smarter controls. Moving to institutional accreditation would imply that the government gave in to institutions’ demands. De-escalation rather than an arms race.

That reducing the burden was a futile reasoning, as institutional-level accreditation really only shifted external burdens for each study programme (satisfying the accreditation agency) to internal ones (satisfying the university’s managers) was irrelevant, because following fashion and de-escalation became impossible when politics intervened.

Parliament, out of its own desire to control, and influenced by stakeholders (student unions, employers’ associations) requires maintenance of programme-level accreditation. Apparently, after all these years they still don’t trust higher education institutions to do their own quality assurance. They want the government to give its independent stamp of accreditation to each separate study programme.

Do we then see the last model, a ‘random walk’ policy shift? Well, it’s rather like not shifting the policy: round three will look very much like round two’s programme accreditation. The options for development in quality assurance are now limited to the pilot projects that are part of the current agreement in parliament. However, the pilot projects are limited in size (six institutions) and scope. And of course, we will have to wait for the pilot to run, to be evaluated, etc. For the next six years, nothing much will change.

Accreditation 3.0? More like 2.1.


About the author

Don WesterheijdenDon Westerheijden is a senior research associate at CHEPS where he co-ordinates research on quality management whilst also co-ordinating and supervising Ph.D. students. Don researches and publishes internationally on quality assurance and accreditation in higher education and its impacts, comparative higher education (e.g., the Bologna Process, employability, and excellence in education), as well as transparency tools (classifications and rankings).

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