Organisation - January 14, 2016

University passes muster

Text:
Rob Ramaker

Wageningen University looks set to achieve all the targets agreed with the ministry. Nevertheless, rector Mol is not in favour of setting new targets. The bureaucratic machinery this requires costs money, while the usefulness of the exercise is not proven.

Illustration Geert-Jan Bruins

It is not just the students who will be assessed in Wageningen this year. Wageningen University itself is due for a performance evaluation. In 2012 the university promised – along with all the other Dutch higher education institutions – to make improvements on seven fronts. These targets were aimed at raising the success rate among students (see box). A small proportion (7 percent) of the university’s funding depends on the results of the evaluation. The rest of the funding depends on student numbers, as it always has.

It seems that Wageningen University need have no fear of the outcome. As of 1 January 2016 the institution seems to have met all the targets. So rector magnificus Arthur Mol expresses satisfaction. ‘The university is doing very well on various fronts,’ he says.

There won’t be much redistribution because everybody is meeting the targets

Pass rate

For some of the targets Wageningen University did not need to make a big push. On five of the seven points the institution only had to promise to keep up the good work. This applied for instance to the number of intensive programmes – with more than 12 contact hours a week – and to the university’s overhead costs. On the other two points, though, serious progress was promised. The pass rate for Bachelor’s degrees – defined as the number of students getting their degree within four years – had to go up from 61 to 75 percent. It now stands at 79 percent, a rise achieved without an increase in the number of dropouts in the first year, which are excluded from the pass rate calculations. In fact, that number went down too, from 14 to 10 percent. It is not clear which policy led to this improvement. It was not the new degree choice check or matching system, introduced nationwide, which did not prove to have an impact on the dropout rate. As to the binding recommendation for students (BSA), Wageningen University only introduced this relatively late in the day. Only since last academic year have first-years gaining fewer than 36 ECTS points been sent away. This is mild compared with other universities. The measure turns out not to lead to more dropouts.

Rector Mol therefore sees a changing academic climate as the main reason for the rising pass rate. ‘You don’t get a grant anymore so students are thinking differently about their studies,’ he says. Not only are they working harder and more efficiently; ‘You also see more and more excellence among students. They are keen to do something extra, like an honours programme. And they think about how to position themselves on the labour market.’ So Mol thinks pass rates would have gone up anyway, even without the performance targets. After all, keeping down the numbers of dropouts and extensions benefits both the students and the institution.

Teachers

As well as improving the pass rate on Bachelor’s degrees, Wageningen University promised to increase the number of teachers with a basic teacher training qualification (BKO in Dutch). In 2008 all the universities launched programmes for improving teachers’ teaching skills. These various programmes are mutually recognized. In 2011 only 24 percent of the teachers had the BKO. ‘Big efforts have been made in the last couple of years,’ says Emiel van Puffelen, head of the Corporate Education, Research & Innovation department, ‘and now about 49 percent of the teachers have the qualification.’ Another 200 teachers are ‘in the pipeline’.

Teachers spend about 220 hours on the BKO programme. The time goes into course days as well as for coaching on their own teaching. ‘It focuses mainly on their own teaching, with a related theoretical framework,’ says Van Puffelen. In their evaluations the participants are full of praise for the programme. ‘Of course people are daunted by those 220 hours,’ says Van Puffelen. But in practice he notices that people enjoy sharing their experiences and get a lot out of the course. In the near future the teaching qualification will become the norm for teachers. There has not yet been a study of whether the BKO programme really does raise the standard of education at universities.

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Criticism

In spite of the good results, rector Arthur Mol sees no reason to set new targets. The agreements were intended, he says, to redistribute funding. Higher education institutions that did not improve would get a bit less, while those that succeeded in doing so would get a bit more. Most universities seem set to meet their targets, however. Mol: ‘So in reality there won’t be much redistribution. But a whole bureaucratic apparatus has been set up for monitoring progress.’ This means the policy has high transaction costs. Not a good use of resources, in the rector’s view. ‘I would rather we got support staff to work on educational innovation.’ Mol adds that universities have enough internal mechanisms for quality control, such as their consultative bodies.

Enthusiasm has waned in other higher education institutions too. Both Karl Dittrich and Thom de Graaf, who chair the lobby organizations of the academic and applied science universities respectively, have expressed negative views of the approach. Premature criticism, in the opinion of the ministry of Education, Culture and Science (O,C&W). ‘I know a lot has already been said about this,’ responds spokesperson Michiel Hendrikx, ‘but we would really like to wait for the evaluation.’

Later next year, then, it will become clear not only how Wageningen University has done, but also whether new targets will be set in the future.


Performance targets

In 2012 the Dutch universities agreed on targets with the ministry of OCW, and in the case of Wageningen, with the ministry of Economic Affairs as well. Seven percent of the existing funding was to be linked to performance, the rest of the funding remained linked to student numbers. The performance targets have four objectives: to improve educational quality, to get students moving through the system more smoothly, to profile institutions more clearly and to increase knowledge valorization.


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