“Fail” for six out of seven programmes
MAASTRICHT. Unjustifiably issued diplomas for too many weak theses and at times a poor academic quality of the study programme: that was the core of the criticism aimed at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (CMW/FASoS) within the framework of a national assessment of the quality of university humanities programmes. To make matters worse, recovery plans drawn up by the faculty were deemed inadequate last week. But according to dean Rein de Wilde, this final hurdle will be taken after all. Scant consolation: elsewhere blows were suffered too, such as in Leiden and Amsterdam.
The quality assessment is important because the outcome decides whether a programme continues to receive funds from the government or will have to close. Things are not that bad at CMW, says dean De Wilde: “The improvement plan for the master’s of Media Studies has already been approved. The other plans still need to be perfected; I have had contact about this, it will be fine. We will be able to officially start the recovery process soon.” This will take one to two years, and then there will be another round of assessments to check whether all points of criticism have been dealt with adequately.
The QANU auditors visited the faculty last summer. QANU is the quality assessor that draws up reports for the Accreditation Organisation of the Netherlands and Flanders. NVAO is the pivot in the process, eventually issuing accreditation and thereby giving the green light for continued funding. If there are too many shortcomings, the programme will have to be discontinued, if recovery is possible, parties get a second chance. It is no wonder that the faculty managers were given a fright when various (confidential) reports were received throughout the autumn. The verdict was harsh: of the seven programmes assessed - both bachelor’s and master’s - six were rejected. Only the master’s programme of ESST (European Studies on Society, Science and Technology) received a pass.
Not that everything was bad, on the contrary. The results for most criteria was positive, or even enthusiastic. Set-up of the curriculum: fine, body of lecturers the same, et cetera. Even the final theses. Faculty manager Jo Wachelder: “There were bachelor’s theses that the committee considered to be of a master’s level.”
But not all of them. Five of the fifteen theses for the master’s of Media Studies that were scrutinised were substandard, while they had been given a pass. In other words: the diplomas that were issued on the basis of these theses were unjustifiable.
Final theses have become very important in this round, says dean De Wilde: “We know – there were faculty representatives in the committees – that the QANU has given the instruction to pay special attention to the quality of theses and other final projects. It is a legacy of the InHolland affair [where a fairly large group of weak students in higher professional education nevertheless received a diploma, ed.]. The paradigm has changed; you can no longer afford to have an occasional not-so-good paper. It is just like in the car industry: two unsafe cars in every hundred, is unacceptable. Everything has to be good.”
De Wilde and Wachelder admit that there were indeed some bad theses: “We have read a number of them.” It made the faculty decide to add a second supervisor to all the programmes, bachelor’s as well as master’s. In the case of a disagreement between the two, a third senior supervisor will be brought in to give the final verdict.
Still, the emphasis on theses causes friction, in particular because in previous audits everything was different. What’s more, it was occasionally considered just fine if students, instead of writing a thesis, did a traineeship and then reported on this. This time, it was put forward as a point of criticism.
There is more that causes controversy, certainly with the university managers. This round of assessments is the first after the UM as a whole was given a so-called institute accreditation. The idea was that the partial accreditations for programmes would then become ‘lighter’, less bureaucracy, less red tape. And more trust, says Executive President Martin Paul: “One is given accreditation if one’s quality control system is solid. So if something is not right in a programme, they should trust that you can and will improve things. Now we are given a yellow card and find ourselves in an official recovery process. I feel that there has to be a discussion on a national level with NVAO and VSNU.”
And about another point, he says. “Look, we have agreed to this system of peer review, so we have to be sporting about it. But if you score well on almost all points except one, this leads to a negative verdict for the whole programme. That rule, that automatism, should also be discussed.”
Within the faculty, there are some doubts about the way in which this round of audits was set up. It was a national audit for humanities, which are in Dutch at most of the universities, so the committee members must be able to read Dutch. If you want external members, also from abroad, you have to resort to Belgians and Germans who know Dutch. But in doing so, you also introduce a particular view on university studies, says dean De Wilde, who would have preferred a broader international forum. “We have a lot of freedom, also when it comes to theses, but in particular the Belgians argue for a strong traditional academic approach. No argumentative report about EU policies in the case of the Ukraine and whether these are wise, for example, but first take the time to delve into the literature, give indications, and only at the end provide arguments for or against. So yes, we will become more traditional; you can no longer risk making mistakes. We remove the risks.”
Certain criticism is acknowledged: “The committee feels that there is too little attention for long-term academic thinking in the bachelor’s of Arts and Social Sciences. With our blocks of eight weeks that is indeed a good point.”
De Wilde feels that the composition and the stance of the committees for the various components is point of concern. “Other committees within humanities, such as those for archaeology and language and culture, did not issue fails. We got a lot of insufficient marks. Leiden received six, Amsterdam five, Utrecht four. They are furious in Leiden. Arts and Social Sciences in Nijmegen is almost always first in the rankings and now also got a fail. This is consistent with the classic views on arts and social sciences within the committee. Also, in the case of European Studies the committee had a problem with problem-based education, where they saw too few individual contributions from students, even though they were certainly there. It is not all group work.”
The faculty will have to submit the adapted recovery plans before the end of April, the NVAO will decide before 1 July whether the recovery periods have been approved.
So far, the CMW faculty has only discussed the matter, for months, internally with members of staff and the student representatives in the various bodies. The faculty council has confidentially discussed the audit. The fact that the issue has been brought out into the open with this publication in Observant, could thwart the planned publication policy. It was agreed nationally that the NVAO and VSNU would issue a press release around 1 July to make the matter public, and the deans from the audited faculties would also come out with their own messages. Nobody wanted over-simplified headlines about “faults in humanities”, said dean De Wilde.