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6 November 2020

The Accreditation Organisation of the Netherlands and Flanders (NVAO) and COVID-19: First Experiences and Lessons Learned


Luut Kroes
Chair of the NVAO Management Team, Director of the NVAO Department the Netherlands.


Similar to QAA, NVAO operates across two diverse systems. In this blog, colleagues from NVAO share some of their approaches to quality assurance and regulation during the COVID-19 pandemic.


Today our world looks very different. It is a cliché to say, but the shift we have witnessed this year has been both seismic and dramatic. In the run up to this moment we had already begun building online communities as networkers, as digitisation has increasingly taken the reins in the last decade. But nothing could have prepared us for the vastly different world of today, where meeting online is a universally accepted part of our daily routines. What does this mean for the future?


How we operate


The Accreditation Organisation of the Netherlands and Flanders (NVAO) has two departments for carrying out its work within our quality assurance systems. A unified quality assurance organisation, NVAO embodies the true spirit of the Treaty between the Kingdom of the Netherlands and the Flemish Community of Belgium.


The advantage of our unified approach is that graduate diplomas for accredited programmes are equivalent in both Flanders and the Netherlands. What’s more, it facilitates the sharing of ideas and innovation to the benefit of both departments within the organisation. Working in two countries as one entity allows us to act as one region within the European Higher Education Area and enables us to deploy bilingual panel members to conduct quick and effective assessments. The role of panel members is to provide oversight on the proceedings of the assessment.


There are also challenges. The distinct nature of the two national departments within the organisation and the fact that each department is governed by the relevant national policies mean that objectives of each department do not always align. Over time, this has led to some divergence in the quality assurance systems, assessment frameworks and network partners in Flanders and the Netherlands. However, on the whole the two departments work harmoniously to achieve the organisation’s shared goals.


Response to the pandemic


The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted both departments in equal measure with far-reaching consequences on the higher education sector and our work. Both Flanders and the Netherlands went into lockdown in mid-March. All universities and universities of applied science closed their doors and went online in record time. All meetings were also paused.


Both departments consulted their Ministries of Education, institutions and panel members to discuss the optimum response to the crisis, and our bi-national board quickly agreed upon appropriate measures for each region.


In the Netherlands, provider assessments were postponed and the accreditation period was extended to make time for higher education institutions to adjust. Online assessment options were also made available. For assessments that required contact such as experiments and clusters, programmes were paused. All interaction since the summer has been online..


As a result of the lockdown in Belgium, Flanders postponed its assessment procedures until the beginning of June 2020. During that period, dialogue between the external panel of experts and the programmes and institutions was used to inform the redesign and reinvention of the former assessment frameworks.


Adapting to hybrid assessments


Between online and face-to-face tuition there is a middle ground. In Flanders, online dialogue is being used to complement the assessment toolkit. Even before lockdown, an online, content-focused element was being incorporated into the Flemish training programme for panel members, to supplement the face-to-face skills part of the assessment. The pandemic forced Flanders to swiftly develop a complete online training platform which is now used to support the whole training programme online.


Circumstances have forced institutions, panel members and process coordinators to adapt quickly to online assessments. Although some procedures have recommenced the systems remain dramatically different to their pre-pandemic selves. Over the next few months, the ever-changing nature of the situation will require flexibility and adaptability to enable our organisation and higher education institutions to respond effectively.


Lessons learned in conducting online assessments


From the very start we were transparent about the preparations being made and the minimum necessary quality of information required about the programme.


We found that for online assessments, having a protocol and a defined structure for conversations enabled the panel and their interlocutors to work effectively.


It was also helpful to have a separate channel or online group for private consultation or simple questions. It is important that the panel has time for deliberation and short breaks when needed.


Practical matters are important too. We would recommend discussing practical matters in advance, and testing the use of camera and microphone before the assessment. Reliable technical facilities are essential, and a back-up option is desirable. Microsoft Teams or Zoom can be used, although some restrictions may apply. Recording options (with consent) can be helpful if problems arise. It is also important that the panel members meet online prior to the visit to prepare and share their questions.


Today we live in a different world. In the coming months, NVAO will review the systems in place and explore the lessons learned in conjunction with higher education institutions, panel members, organisations of research universities, universities of applied science and students’ unions.


Perhaps the same applies to our relationship with QAA: we will meet again in the future, but for now we retain a flexible approach and continue to engage in our partnership online.