Close collaboration to develop a cohesive quality assurance system

”I am pleased that a new quality assurance system for higher education has been adopted. I hope this new system will be long-term so that all involved will have time to thoroughly work on further increasing the quality of education”, says University Chancellor Harriet Wallberg about the government's recently announced decision.

The decision comes almost exactly two years after Harriet Wallberg was assigned by the former government to develop a proposal for a new system for quality assurance in higher education. The system that has now been adopted is largely based on the proposal that Harriet Wallberg and Commission Secretary Agnes Ers put forth in December 2014.

Two particular areas in focus for improvement

There were two areas in particular in which Harriet Wallberg and Agnes Ers saw a need for improvement. The first one was to move away from a narrow focus on students’ degree projects.

”We wanted to try to develop a system that included all aspects of quality and that gave justice to the quality assurance procedures already present in the HEIs”, says Harriet Wallberg.

The second area was that Sweden would need to take into account the standards agreed upon in Europe when it comes to quality issues in higher education. This is especially important for the students’ international mobility.

SUHF (the Association of Swedish Higher Education) had pointed out early on that a new quality assurance system needed to be developed to replace that which was implemented in 2011-2014. SUHF presented a proposal that would involve the higher education institutions taking more responsibility for quality assurance.

The government took note of this and pointed out in the directives to the committee that the new system needed to be cohesive, and that the internal quality work of the higher education institutions should be taken into account.

”This was based on a belief that the system should be quality enhancing, and not only controlling, in order for it to have maximum impact. It was also important to take advantage of the positive elements of the old system, such as the focus on student learning”, says Harriet Wallberg.

Consultation period in 2015

The consultation period that took place in the spring of 2015 expressed broad support for the proposal.

A few instances pointed out an ambiguity as to how the interests of professional life were to be taken into account in the quality assurance processes.

”We must of course ensure that there are no doubts regarding the involvement of professional life and that needs of the professional market are taken into consideration”, says Harriet Wallberg.

According to Harriet Wallberg, a key success factor behind the positive reception of the proposal was that the investigation included meetings with all higher education institutions and that the proposal thus was based on a broad understanding of the sector.

”The assessment process showed that the institutions are at different stages regarding their internal quality work. But we deemed the time ripe for placing more responsibility for quality assurance of higher education on universities and colleges. The HEIs were also interested in a further internationalisation of their work and welcomed the suggestion of English-speaking panel experts”.

Four parts in the new system

The new quality assurance system consists of four parts:

  • Applications for degree-awarding powers
  • Reviews of the quality assurance work of higher education institutions
  • Programme evaluations
  • Thematic evaluations

The importance of the programme evaluations is emphasized to a larger extent in the government decision compared to in Harriet Wallenberg's proposal.

I very much welcome that the stronger focus on programme evaluations. These evaluations include professional qualifications wherein there is a national interest of an overview.

Challenge to enable comparision

Another aspect that was not included in the initial suggestion is the possibility of making comparisons between higher education institutions and programmes. It is now up to UKÄ to develop methods for how to implement this feature. The same applies to analysing the need for further sanctions, in addition to the ability of the Swedish Higher Education Autority to revoke degree-awarding powers. Intensive development work is currently underway within the authority.

”We work closely with both higher education institutions, students and the professional market in the development process. We also cooperate with international experts on quality assurance. This is essential for the national system to be sustainable and include both quality assurance procedures from the Swedish Higher Education Autority and the higher education institution’s internal quality assurance procedures”, says Harriet Wallberg.

Hoping for more than one six-year cycle

”My hope is that we will maintain this system for more than one six-year cycle. Quality processes at universities require perseverance and continuity. This autumn pilots of programme evaluations and HEI audits will be initiated, starting with teacher education.”

Evaluation of third-cycle programmes has already begun as pilots, and these will later be included in the new quality assurance system. No later than October 1st the Swedish Higher Education Autority will present a system for the government and by then more details of the system will be in place.