Internationalization has become an indicator for quality in higher education. The growing importance of internationalization in higher education on the one hand and the diversity in rationales, approaches and strategies of institutions and programmes on the other hand, call for an assessment of the quality of internationalization and the realisation of a system of certifications to define the progress and status of the internationalization at the programme and institutional levels. Over the past two decades several instruments have been designed to address this assessment, primarily at the institutional level.
The Accreditation Organisation of the Netherlands and Flanders (NVAO) decided to develop an instrument for the certification of internationalization at the programme level. This certificate, called a ‘distinguished quality feature for internationalization’, has different levels as to indicate the state of internationalization (achieved so far) and to provide incentives for improvement (where is it heading to). The certificate doesn’t assess a specific activity but its comprehensive approach to internationalization (the why, how and what of internationalization). It uses both quantitative (what has been achieved) and qualitative indicators (rationales, vision, targets, content). Its starting point are the internationalization objectives of the institution itself.
The framework used is focused around the questions what (the programme wants to achieve with internationalization), why (does internationalization contribute to overall quality), and how (does internationalization take shape in the learning outcomes, teaching and learning, staff, services and students)? As standards it focused on vision/policy, learning outcomes, teaching and learning process, students, staff and services, each having two to three criteria.
In 2010, the NVAO tested this approach in a pilot project among 21 Dutch and Flemish programmes. The experiences with and findings of this pilot project are described in the report of the pilot (www.nvao.net: Assessment of Internationalisation - An evaluation of the NVAOs pilot procedures).
Although NVAO considers internationalization a mandatory element of all higher education, the distinctive quality feature was developed as a voluntary system, making a distinction between basic internationalization for every programme under the regular accreditation process, and deeper or further internationalization as a deliberate choice.
The pilot institutions
A total number of 21 programmes applied for the pilot, triple the number expected, of which 11 programmes offered by universities of applied sciences or university colleges and 10 byresearch universities. The majority of the applications came from Dutch institutions, only four Flemish programmes decided to participate. A clarification may be found in the legal constraints of the Flemish Higher Education system. Institutions can only offer English taught programmes at Master’s level and if an equivalent Dutch taught programme is available in Flanders. This makes the creation of an international programme a bigger challenge.
When looking at the different fields of study participating in the pilot, eight programmes in the field of (international) business were involved. Various representatives of these programmes indicated that ‘business by nature is international’ which does explain their interest in the pilot. Other participating programmes (four in total) having an international name can be found in the field of law and social sciences. Also the internationalisation of four engineering programmes was assessed during the pilot: one of a university of applied sciences and three of a university. Two programmes in the field of health sciences and two in the field of performing arts were involved too.
Overview of programmes assessed
None of the programmes have been assessed overall as excellent, almost fifty percent of the participants received a good, eight programmes have been assessed as satisfactory and the internationalisation of three programmes was considered as unsatisfactory.
When making a distinction between the programmes with a professional orientation and the programmes with an academic orientation the latter ones fared better; 69% of them were assessed as good, while 13% of the professional oriented programmes received this assessment. The three programmes that were assessed as unsatisfactory are all professional oriented programmes. However, the number of participants in this pilot is not statistically representative and therefore we cannot draw any generic conclusions from this outcome.
Master programmes fared better than Bachelor programmes: 70% of the Master programmes have been assessed as good, whilst 27% of the Bachelor programmes received this judgement. The three programmes that were assessed as unsatisfactory are all Bachelor programmes.
Both the staff from NVAO and the members of the expert panel provided extensive feedback to the pilot project, which resulted in better guidelines for the self-assessment, the visits, the reporting and the certification. The feedback provided, resulted in particular in a revised framework, in which services were no longer a separate standard but included into students and staff. For the new framework see www.nvao.net: Framework for the Assessment of Internationalisation..
While developing the framework and running the pilot procedures, NVAO closely collaborated with its partners in the European Consortium for Accreditation (ECA). NVAO invited international experts from other agencies to take part as panel members and, where possible, included observers from additional agencies in the procedures. The European Consortium for Accreditation has formally decided to build on the Dutch-Flemish pilot and extend the certificate for internationalisation to the European level.
Guest blogger, Hans de Wit is professor of internationalization of higher education at the Centre for Applied Research on Economics and Management (CAREM) of the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, the Netherlands, and Director of the new ‘Centre for Higher Education Internationalisation’ of the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore (UCSC) in Milan, Italy.