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Round table International comparative analysis of HRD Masters programmes

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Subject Accreditation, assessment and quality systems
Context The statements on this subject have been compiled from the discussion at the round table (see proceedings).
Discussion Participants: Pia Bramming [PB], Nick Clarke [NC], Joseph Kessels [JoK], Monica Lee [ML], Gary McLean [GMc], Paul Smith [PS], John Walton [JW]

[JoK] It's not very easy for the ambition to act collaboratively in setting up some kind of quality improvement system, because it raises the question: what do we have in common, what is the focus there? But may be, the Bologna agreement made it necessary to have new programmes accredited in the next years. 
    Accreditation is one of the requisites for recognition of degrees in Europe, and in many countries it is also a prerequisite for getting state funding. This accreditation will be done by independent accreditation organisations. Some countries are already quite advanced in this process, and other countries are slowly getting up. This might be something for us to be aware of, especially for those who are responsible for those programmes, and to play an important role in European exchange in this domain. 
Therefore I would like to invite Monica to inform us about what we are trying to do in the University Forum to help this process.

[JWi] A question for clarification. You mentioned accreditation, and I wonder whether you can elaborate on what you mean by accreditation. At the moment, there are a lot of pan- and national issues involved with the Bologna agreement, not the least of which is the duration of study which is quite different in Britain to other parts of Europe. So there is an issue of standardisation. My concern is this notion of accreditation, which is what our discussion is about. Certainly in Britain universities have a charter which allows them to award degrees; they are self-awarding. They may have external assessment as part of teaching quality assurance, but they have their independence towards degrees. Now, can you elaborate on this whole issue?

[ML] I shall try and do that! The University Forum has for some while now been considering this issue through joint intervention because of the Dutch need for some sort of quality assurance system, which in the UK we don't actually need because we do it ourselves. We don't have to do ir for that purpose, and indeed the different systems across Europe make that a problem. 
    The University Forum, set up in the early 90s, established a system of accreditation and a certificate of professional recognition, based on learning outcomes, which was used both in the UK and across Europe. That was through Euresform, which was a sub-body of the University Forum. This Euresform certificate still exists, but the body of the Forum has moved much more into a wide organisation, looking at and working with research and practice in the human resources. We felt, particularly  because HRD has not so long been understood as a discipline, that if anybody was going to provide a European quality assurance system in this it may as well be us. Therefore we ought to at least consider it and throw up some ideas, rather than just wait for somebody else to do it.
    The way in which we had been thinking was to revitalise the Euresform branch of the University Forum. John Walton played a leading role in establishing Euresform and the certificate of professional recognition. This was in the early 90s, and the way in which at that time we managed to avoid some of the national differences was based on learning outcomes and, to some extent, on the accreditation of prior learning. So instead of saying that this course matched with that course, we developed a system of learning outcomes that we thought an HR professional working internationally ought to be able to meet. So that included intervention in another country. If those courses or, in some cases, individuals met those outcomes we could say: yes, as a group we recognise that and certify it. It is a very pretty certificate with logos all over it.

[JW] I was involved, as Monica mentioned, with the development of the Euresform certificate. It was impossible to get a common university qualification, because there were all sorts of differences in national practices and approaches. One country, for example, would emphasise economic aspects of HRD and another one would emphasise learning. The times scales were different too; this was pre-Bologna. So we tried to develop a high level of aggregation that each university across Europe that was interested could buy into. To begin with, there were something like 20 outcomes that would be somewhere embedded in the programmes. 
    We also avoided certain issues, for instance having external examiners evaluating other people's programmes. It was quite important, since there were a lot of political issues here. Another issue had got to do with language. We had the certificate in two languages, both in English and in French. We had to go backwards and forwards, to the various countries involved, to ensure that in either English or in French it actually made sense. That involved quite a lot of rewriting and re-structuring of some of the work. So actually constructing such a certificate is a very time-consuming, laborious, fascinating process, but it might be useful to supply that form of background anyway.

[ML] Yes, as John said, we spent a lot of time on that. It was very well received by participants and also by the institutions involved. One of the other aspects of it, because of the need to do international interventions, was that Euresform also managed swaps of staff and students, and still does, so it actually enable people to do that.
    Jim Stewart, who is the chair of the University Forum, and I had a meeting with John Konrad about issues of accreditation. He is working a lot with the Bologna agreement, for instance in a project which is trying to tune the Bologna agreement, to work out what is happening. One of their main problems is how to account for the accreditation of prior learning across different countries. We brought in the issues around Euresform too. 
    One of the problems in taking forward what we have been thinking through was financing. He has suggested that there would be the possibility of doing a research project through the EU around establishing the accreditation of prior learning. Effectively we might try revisiting the whole Euresform experience . Obviously, this would have to be done by institutions, but the University Forum could support this by promoting a partnership. 
    In the same way, we could as a Forum develop the certificate and ways of continuing to swap students and staff in a wider area, perhaps including the US, and so develop an certificate of international recognition, through learning outcomes. At the same time, through those means, we might be able to create a body of experts that could serve the Dutch needs, or as a panel be able to say: this is the sort of standards we would expect for an international HR professional. 
    So the discussion about Euresform is bringing in those ideas. Is there an opportunity to revitalise those ideas? Are there institutions here which would be interested in revitalising this or be part of this?

[PS] I've just got a slight concern with Masters programmes. We have already got quite rigorous quality systems university-wide. We also got a professional body, accreditation as well, where we meet professional standards of bodies like the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development. I just wondered about the type of quality system you talk about: Is this going to be an extra layer on top? Where would we have to meet those new standards or new systems if we go ahead?

[ML] That's certainly where we come again to the original Euresform discussion because it sounds like it's another hurdle to jump through if you want to get more content or another way of looking at things. This is one of the reasons why we ended up looking at learning outcomes or the ability to show that individuals have reached particular outcomes, particular ways of doing things. 
    And, as you say, in the UK we already have the CIPD and accreditation possibilities. But the CIPD doesn't seek, as far as I understand anyway, to offer international recognition. The one thing that we found, certainly in terms of the Euresform experience, was the ability to provide an international or European certificate that showed people had the skills to work internationally – in countries other than their own. one of the existing accreditation takes that extra step. The idea was that if someone had this certificate he or she would say that all these institutions recognise this.
    Another issues we had to face was that no one institution wanted another one to accredit them or say that they were right. But all the institutions collectively agreed to these learning outcomes. Therefore we used the logos of all those institutions. So then the student can go with this certificate and say: All the institutions have agreed I have reached this standard across Europe. And the institutions can say: This is a European or an international recognition.
    Can I just add one point about student experience. If we got together research projects around this, we would have to look closely at the accreditation of prior learning and different implications of that. Then we would be able to accredit that experience or understand better what that experience was, how those students met some learning outcomes already. Those without experience would have to do other things, a course or whatever. These are all issues we would have to struggle with.

[NC] I am just wondering about the idea of learning outcomes. What's wrong with the ones we have already got from Euresform. They were at Masters level. 

[ML] The idea would be to do this with a much wider group of institutions and, hopefully, to develop some learning outcomes that are truly cross-European or fully international. But we have already done a lot of groundwork.

[NC] My other question is about accreditation: What are the resources available, how is that going to work? Presumably those programmes have to demonstrate that method of learning outcomes to somebody, maybe a group of experts. Where are those resources? 

[ML] That would be one of the questions!

[JoK] The system as it has developed for instance in the Netherlands is quite advanced in this. It starts out from national accreditation organisations, and so-called VBI’s (Validation and Assessment Institutes), which are independent from the universities and appointed by the local or national governments. They will work with accreditation examinations, and the universities will have to pay for that. So there is also a business aspect in it. And it will be a lot of work, so it will cost a lot of money for the universities to do. So you also feel there is quite a resistance from the universities to get involved in such a process. On the other hand, if you don't get this recognition you risk loosing the state funding. So this puts a lot of tension on the universities.
    I have the impression that the Netherlands are very much in front of the development in Europe, but I don't know whether this is wise. But we do expect that other countries need to go through such a procedure as well, and hopefully the system will change, because it's not very encouraging. On the other hand, if we come up with an interesting alternative that really makes sense in terms of creating a stimulating community that talks about quality improvement in higher education, for instance in our domain. That would be a great advantage.
    When the system continues like now, we will have some official body that's not interested in HRD or related topics. To assess a programme they will ask questions like: Is your programme based on an international benchmark of HRD standards? What about your intake of students? What about the qualification of your staff? Is your staff involved in doing research in the domain that you are teaching? Tell us about the assessment of student work. What are your specific facilities? Etc. You notice that this is not very encouraging when it comes to advancing our domain of study.

[ML] Can I add to that just briefly: an example of what used to happen in Lancaster through the Euresform certificate. We didn't go for assessing the course, that the whole course met the standards. We would say that individuals could, if they wishes, show that they met these learning outcomes. We would charge them an extra for that, not a lot, but just on top, if they wished to get this certificate. So the normal course ran as always, but for individuals we put together a little portfolio that was based on their work in the course and outside the course, if that's any help, and we charged them the examinations.

[PB] I totally agree that it's very important that an accreditation shouldn't promote some kind of things, but that it should promote diversity and variety. But, on the other hand, my experience from the Copenhagen Business School is that accreditation and international accreditation in one way or another is going to be forced upon us. Therefore I agree that we can just as well move on and do some pioneering work and make some space where it can be possible to promote this variety. 
    The Copenhagen Business School has been very much involved in the Bologna discussions. It has been working with competence profiles, trying to make every education at the school develop these. That's quite a big work, and I think that some experience from that would be helpful here. It's the same problem of allowing for diversity and, on the other hand, promoting some kind of quality. 

[JoK] This would be very helpful.

[GMc] It might be of some value just to share with you the struggles of the Academy of HRD around the issue of accreditation. We've had a committee on accreditation for about five years. There is so much dissension around this issues, and nothing ever happened. There are lots of concerns about legal implications, for instance if you choose not to accredit an organisation, and the organisation takes you to court. The US, as you know, is a very litigious society, and that was a huge concern for the Academy.
    What has happened out of that lack of action is that there is an entrepreneurial group that got together and said: We are going to develop standards of accreditation for HRD based on the AACSP standards for business schools. I haven't heard a lot of enthusiasm from my colleagues about this. The person who was in charge of the organisation - the first university that got accredited was hers. Which raises some interesting concerns around conflicts of interest when you are not truly independent. That's a concern I would have for the University Forum. you are talking about membership, accrediting members. I think that is a huge issue around accreditation.
    But, if something does go forward, there is this group that has created a whole set of standards for HRD. It might be worth taking a look at what they put together and see if is has value for Europe.
 

Source Recording of the round-table discussion at the HRD conference in Limerick, May 2004 (see proceedings).
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