The University Chancellor's Office (UKÄ) has revealed its new guidance for university reviews! Now the student unions and the universities are faced with new challenges and opportunities. The new guidance means some change, with fewer assessment bases and a simplified self-assessment process. What do these changes really mean for student unions and how should we navigate this new landscape? The SFS Quality Committee (SQC) dives into UKÄ's new guidance and tries to explain the implications it may have for student unions.
The quality assurance system in Sweden is starting to take shape! It is something that pleases us in the SFS quality committee. It is worth remembering that there has been a turbulent time before the current system was put in place in 2017. The system at the time, The Swedish Higher Education Agency's system for quality evaluation 2011–2014, was heavily criticized by SFS and other actors in the higher education sector. The criticism was based on the fact that the system did not focus on learning as a whole, but primarily on the results of learning. The results-oriented perspective was reflected in the fact that the system took great account of reviews of the students' independent work. There were certain educations where assessment of degree projects was not possible, for example in educations with little or no independent work, newly established educations, educations that lead to a two-year university degree, and educations being discontinued.
The Löfven I government took the initiative to change the quality assurance system. On March 17, 2016, the government decided to give the Office of the Chancellor of the Exchequer (UKÄ) the task of further developing and implementing a new system for quality assurance of higher education. UKÄ's proposal was later adopted and has been applied during a review cycle 2017–2022. The system is now better anchored in international guidelines for quality assurance, above all to The Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (ESG) written jointly by ENQA, ESU, EUA and EURASHE*. The guidelines are then adopted by the European education ministers.
Briefly about the University Chancellor's office and the quality assurance system
The University Chancellor's Office (UKÄ) is a state authority under the government and has a number of different responsibilities within the higher education sector. In general, UKÄ has three different missions. To begin with, the authority has a mission to review the quality of higher education and the higher education institutions' systems for quality assurance of higher education and research. Secondly, UKÄ is responsible for following up and analyzing developments and trends within Swedish higher education. Within that, they are also responsible for reviewing the effectiveness of the higher education institutions' resource utilization and for official statistics in the higher education sector. Thirdly, UKÄ is also a supervisory authority for the university. This means that they review that the universities comply with laws and regulations.
The central point is that the universities and UKÄ have a joint responsibility for ensuring the quality of higher education in Sweden. Universities and colleges are responsible for the quality of the operations and this refers to quality control as well as quality development. UKÄ's task is to ensure that the universities take this responsibility. The national system for quality assurance consists of four different types of audits.
- Review of the higher education institutions' quality assurance work
UKÄ examines the higher education institutions' internal systems for quality assurance.
- Examination of examination permit
In order to be granted a degree permit, it is required that the planned education meets the quality requirements set out in the Higher Education Act and the Higher Education Ordinance. UKÄ therefore tests whether the applicant university has the necessary prerequisites for students to achieve the degree goals for the education.
- Thematic evaluations
Thematic evaluations aim to contribute with important knowledge and comparisons in areas that are important for the quality of the higher education institutions' operations. Often it is about one of the large portal values found at the beginning of the university act.
- Educational evaluations
Educational evaluations focus on educations and areas where the need for improvement and development is greatest and brings the most benefit.
Overview of UKÄ's four different reviews. Picture: UKÄ.
The new system
Since 2022, UKÄ has worked to review the system and see if any changes should be made. Relatively early on, it was established that no major system changes would be made, which was welcomed by the sector which had worked hard to get the current system up and running. Instead, UKÄ has decided on certain changes in the existing system and developed its working methods. SFS has been involved in the process through dialogue with the authority, participation in UKÄ's reference groups, and that we have submitted our own input to the development through The system for quality assurance after 2022 – SFS quality assurance position paper 2021 (Dnr P2-23/2021).
In any case, the new guidance for higher education institution reviews involves a number of tangible changes that will affect the quality work of higher education institutions. How will these changes affect student unions? Let's go through all the changes and the implications for student unions.
A guide for both education and research
In the past, the universities have had separate guidelines for education and research. These now merge into one. The idea is that this should simplify the process and make it more understandable. This should also be favorable for establishing that education and research must go hand in hand. On the other hand, this also calls for a more holistic view of quality work in the entire operation at the university.
For student unions this consolidation means that an overall picture of both education and research at the university is needed. It is important that you as a student union get involved and ensure that the student perspective is well represented in both areas. We recommend working for strong communication between student representatives in both education and research to ensure that student voices are heard to the same extent. We are also aware that students sometimes do not have the same natural insight into the research part of the university's activities. Here, too, we recommend dialogue with doctoral student representatives, teaching representatives and other staff to gain a greater understanding. It can also be beneficial to see how other universities and student unions have done, for example a university similar to your own.
A coherent self-evaluation
Institutions of higher education no longer have to write two separate self-assessments for education and research. This consolidation should contribute to a more collective and focused reflection on the quality work, similar to what we discussed above.
For student unions we urge you to take part in the work with the self-evaluation. Your insight and experience is invaluable in ensuring that the student perspective is meaningfully included in both parts being studied. Work to gain access to drafts of the self-evaluation and contribute feedback and perspectives from the students. We want to flag the fact that the guidance does not explicitly say that the student unions must participate in the writing of the self-evaluation, which means that the student union itself must take the initiative if the invitation does not come from the university.
Greater scope and responsibility
The educational institutions will now have greater freedom to describe their quality work. This gives them the opportunity to highlight unique strengths and methods, but also places higher demands on transparency and accountability.
For student unions it is important to remember that with greater freedom also comes greater responsibility. Be prepared to carefully review and reflect on how the institution describes its quality work. Be proactive and suggest improvements where needed. Remember that you have a unique insight into the students' experience of the quality work at the university.
Information meetings replace start-ups
An important part of the review process is the start of the review. Instead of having start-ups, UKÄ will now have digital information meetings with the universities. UKÄ will now organize open digital information meetings for the universities and the student and doctoral student unions. Before a higher education institution begins its review process, it is assumed that they have participated in one of these meetings. The information meeting aims to provide general information about the structure and content of the review process. This can be seen as an attempt to create a more inclusive and collaborative review process that should not be as burdensome for the universities and student unions.
For student unions we recommend using these information meetings to build stronger relationships with universities, UKÄ and other stakeholders. Make sure you are well prepared by reading beforehand and try to establish clear goals of what you want to achieve during the meetings. It is a good opportunity to ask questions if there is something that you think is unclear.
Significantly fewer assessment grounds
Here we can see one of the biggest changes and which probably causes a big reaction. The new guidance is slimmed down from 30 to 16 assessment grounds. UKÄ has expressed that they strive for greater clarity and less overlap in the higher education institutions' self-assessments and descriptions of the quality assurance work.
For student unions it is necessary to be vigilant and ensure that the quality of the review does not deteriorate despite fewer assessment grounds. There is a risk that some topics targeted by the old review will disappear or not receive as much attention. This is something SFS through SQC has pointed out consistently during UKÄ's development work, but without success. It is important to get involved in discussions about the assessment bases and how much care the university places and make sure that the student perspective is taken into account in this process. It is also crucial to have a discussion about the different concepts in the assessment bases and how you see it at the university. Finally, we would also particularly like to highlight assessment basis 5 during education, Student support, learning resources and infrastructure. When SQC has studied student laws from the last round, there have been several student unions that have had challenges defining the meaning of the assessment basis and have missed discussing the issue at system level. We therefore encourage a broad discussion within the student union and with the university about what the assessment basis entails.
The assessment areas disappear
This can be seen as a crucial step away from a more subject-oriented review which can encourage a more holistic assessment. There may be benefits to removing the assessment areas. SQC has noted that in several cases the assessment areas overlapped and dealt with similar issues. We have also noted that some student unions have had challenges formulating themselves within the framework of the assessment areas in the student submission for the university reviews. Given that the assessment grounds are so much fewer, we are cautiously positive that the assessment areas are removed. On the other hand, there is a risk, similar to the basis for assessment, that certain issues do not receive as much consideration, for example student influence.
For student unions this may mean increased flexibility but also uncertainty about what will be prioritized in the review. Be active in the dialogue with the institution about the review process to ensure that important areas for students are not overlooked. Special consideration should be given to student influence as it no longer has its own assessment area.
Greater focus on quality culture
UKÄ has an ambition that the changes should lead to a greater focus on cultural issues. Instead of only looking at systems and procedures, the review will now place greater emphasis on how the universities actually work systematically with quality. Here we come to a clever concept, namely "quality culture". What is it and how do the universities work with it? It can vary and does not always have to be documented, but can be part of the everyday working methods or attitude.
For student unions is this a chance for you to influence the quality culture at your university. We recommend that you work to ensure that the university has a positive and inclusive quality culture that puts the students' needs and experiences at the center. Make sure you are an active and constructive partner in this work. Once again, we would like to point out that student unions are in a unique position to push for changes that benefit students.
Some other thoughts on the changes
It is clear that UKÄ's changed approach aims to reduce bureaucracy and encourage HEIs to take greater responsibility for their own quality work. It is also clear that UKÄ wants to see a greater focus on the actual quality culture rather than solely on systems and procedures. As always when changes occur, there are both opportunities and risks. The big question is how well the student unions will adapt to and utilize these changes to the benefit of the students and quality work in general. It will be exciting to see, and as central players in higher education, the student unions of course now have an important role to play in shaping the university and quality assurance system of the future.
With the introduction of the new system for university reviews, special challenges also appear for the student representatives within the assessment group. It is absolutely crucial that these representatives have access to the same conditions and resources as other members to be able to do a satisfactory job. It is in everyone's interest that student representatives feel well equipped, as they bring a unique and invaluable perspective to the table, namely the student perspective. To ensure that student representatives are well prepared for their role, SQC will work proactively to develop specific support functions. Our goal is to give these representatives all the support they need so that they can successfully contribute to the work of the assessment group and thereby also to the quality work within higher education in Sweden.
SQC would also like to express our disappointment that UKÄ did not choose to change the grades for the reviews in the way we suggested. We believe that an adjustment to the grading could lead to a clearer and fairer picture of a higher education institution's quality work. It could also act as an additional incentive for the higher education institutions to constantly improve and develop their work in quality assurance, and that the evaluations could have been concentrated where they are most needed.
SFS proposal for grading system i SFS quality assurance position paper 2021.
Another aspect is that we believe there is room for improvement when it comes to the appendix in the guidance which is specifically aimed at student unions. The current material, although informative, does not feel completely exhaustive. Therefore, we see the need for this support material to be developed and updated so that it more concretely helps the student unions to understand and navigate through the new review process. We at SQC have strong confidence in UKÄ and are aware that they are working to develop support for student unions. It is particularly important to provide support and information to the student unions whose universities are first in line in the upcoming evaluation cycle. For these corps, it is crucial to quickly and efficiently familiarize themselves with the new process and understand their role and responsibilities.
Finally, we would like to comment on the place of doctoral students and students in the part of the guidance on research. When reviewing the new guidance, we noted an important exception, namely that doctoral students are not explicitly mentioned in the section on research. The guidance states that "Quality assurance work engages management and employees as well as external stakeholders when appropriate, and supports the quality culture and strategic work at all levels of the organization". We know that doctoral students sometimes experience a strange balance between being a student and an employee, and that doctoral students are not always included in the college. We therefore assume that the universities and UKÄ include doctoral students in the concept of "collaborator" and that the students are also included in the development of the research.
Finally, SQC would like to express our displeasure that the entry made by SFS in 2021 through SFS quality assurance position paper 2021 have not been taken into account in UKÄ's development work and instead the views of the higher education institutions through the Association of Swedish Universities & Colleges (SUHF) have been allowed to permeate the agenda. We believe that it is regrettable that the student perspective has not had an impact.
SFS work going forward
SFS's commitment to the issue of the quality assurance system is deeply rooted and will continue to be a central part of the quality committee's activities. With UKÄ's new review guidance in mind, we see it as more important than ever to provide our members with the support and knowledge needed to successfully navigate the system. Firstly, SQC will actively highlight and discuss these changes in the Network for Education Officers. This will be a platform where together we can share experiences, insights and best practices for the work with university reviews.
Furthermore, we are aware that these changes can bring challenges for the student unions. Therefore, SFS will develop special support functions for the student unions that are now faced with participating in the university reviews. We want to ensure that every student body feels ready and equipped to make their best contribution to the university review.
Finally, as part of our ongoing work to improve quality in higher education, we will publish our analysis and conclusions of the student laws collected during the last round of institution reviews. This will give us all a deeper understanding of how the student perspective has been integrated into the review so far and where we can put efforts to further strengthen the student voice in the future. We look forward to continuing the work together with the student unions, UKÄ and the universities for an even better quality in higher education. Regardless of how the system has developed, we are convinced that the student perspective is crucial and we will fight for it to be at the center.
*The European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA), European Students' Union (ESU), The European University Association (EUA) and the European Association of Institutions in Higher Education (EURASHE).
The blog entry is written by SFS's quality committee, SQC, which works with issues related to quality in higher education. For 2023/24, the committee consists of the students Tilda Jalakas, Linus Holmström, Camilla Åsberg and Jacob Färnert.