Javier Oliver is the general director of AVAP, the Agència Valenciana d’Avaluació i Prospectiva. Since he came to his position in September 2019 his work and commitment has been to transform the agency’s organization to achieve the agency’s international accreditation.
“It is a long process, which has not been easy from the beginning,” he explained during this interview. This process is coming to an end and, with favorable interim reports, AVAP is expected to obtain the desired and necessary international recognition from EQAR, the European Register of University Quality Assurance Agencies, in the coming weeks.
Javier Oliver talked about all the interesting aspects of the agency that affect the quality of higher education and the improvement of society.
Q: What does achieving European accreditation mean for AVAP?
A: In Spain there is a national agency (ANECA) and in many autonomous communities there is a regional agency that has all the competences of quality management in higher education. These competences become full when they appear in the EQAR register.
Due to the lack of European accreditation, AVAP is unable to address the verification of new degrees and their modifications, and institutional accreditation. We are currently taking steps to develop protocols that we hope to be able to start applying as soon as our appearance in the registry is confirmed.
Q: The process is taking a long time, when did it start?
A: The process started two years ago. The first major achievement was to get someone on the agency’s staff to focus exclusively on internationalization.
The ultimate goal is for the agency to be registered in EQAR’s register of accredited agencies. To do this, the first thing to demonstrate is that AVAP complies with the ESG (European Standards for Quality Assurance) and, for this, the clearest way to approach this is to go to ENQA (European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education). Therefore, the first phase of the process was to ask ENQA for monitoring to validate that AVAP in its day-to-day activity complies with European standards. This assessment is mainly managed by ENQA through a panel of experts that accredits whether or not it complies with the aforementioned ESG. We have successfully completed the “examination”, since last June we were confirmed as full members of ENQA.
With this final ENQA report, we have applied to EQAR for inclusion in the registry.
Q: What benefits does AVAP gain from achieving European accreditation?
The benefits are many. The internationalization of the agency itself is the first of them. This involves collaborating and contributing to the development of ENQA and international coordination in the development of standards in the supervision of higher education worldwide.
In addition, we will have full capacity to develop any of the activities involved in quality management in higher education. ENQA’s supervision focuses on the management of degrees, that is, what happens with a degree throughout its development, from the initial proposal to its revision over the years, with its follow-up and, finally, accreditation, but it has no competence, at least so far, in the rest of AVAP’s tasks, such as research, even though it represents a very large volume of its overall work.
Throughout the process, ENQA has reviewed the protocols, the personnel involved, the external evaluators; they have checked that students are involved in all processes and have monitored the agency’s independence from political power, which must imply that the latter has no effect on the technical issues that the agency determines. It merely supervises the annual management and endorses the business plan, but has no influence on the activity of the technical committees.
Q: By achieving European accreditation, the Valencian agency could carry out institutional accreditation, which it cannot do at the moment. What does this process consist of?
Institutional accreditation of centers is established as an alternative to the model of accreditation of official university degrees. The procedure to be followed is regulated in Royal Decree 640/2021, of July 27, on the creation, recognition, authorization and accreditation of universities and university centers, so the activity is carried out in accordance with Spanish legislation.
In order to obtain institutional accreditation, universities must meet the following requirements: (1) To have renewed the initial accreditation of at least half of the official Bachelor’s, Master’s and Doctoral degrees they offer, in accordance with the general procedure provided for in Royal Decree 822/2021, of September 28, establishing the organization of official university education; and, (2) The implementation of an internal quality assurance system, aimed at the continuous improvement of the training offered to students must be certified, in accordance with the provisions of Royal Decree 822/2021, of September 28, and in accordance with the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (ESG).
If the university incorporates lifelong learning into its internal quality system, agencies could accredit the quality of lifelong learning in a much simpler way following the same procedure as institutional accreditation.
It seems clear that Europe has opted for institutional accreditation as a strategy for the evaluation of quality in higher education and therefore it is a priority for AVAP to have and organize a structure that can adequately attend to this new procedure. We have already begun to design it.
Q: What will AVAP’s situation be if it does not achieve international registration?
A: An agency that does not appear in EQAR will not have the capacity to act as a quality agency. According to the new Spanish regulations, there are 4 years to be internationally accredited. Of the 11 Spanish agencies, there are currently 3 that are not in EQAR. Of these 3 agencies, we have been the first to take the step.
Q: Let’s focus on micro-credentials. They are on the lips of all those involved in higher education: the Ministry of Universities, the universities themselves, quality agencies, students… What are they and what role do they play in higher education?
A: Officially, a micro-credential is proof of the learning outcomes that a student has acquired after completing a Short Duration Program (STP). In turn, a PCD is a typology of courses on a particular subject that focus on the specific needs of society and can be part of higher degrees.
Progress must be made in the standardization of what is meant by a micro-credential: a certification of a small training, but who is behind the certification? From my point of view, there is still some time for reflection. The same concept of micro-credential is not the same depending on who is describing it. The requirements for accrediting and certifying microcredentials are not yet clearly established.
At the ministerial level, the latest state regulations are giving them a lot of visibility. The university must assume an important role in the process of continuous training that any person needs to address throughout his or her life. We must find a way to integrate the myriad of training options that exist in aspects of quality.
Q: Let’s look at AVAP’s on-site work, what are the Agency’s daily tasks?
A: AVAP has a quality area and an economic and personnel management area. The quality area is the one that solves all the tasks of supervision of higher education in the Valencian Community. We are an autonomous community with very powerful universities, both public and private. For this purpose, the technical staff of the agency coordinates the management of the different programs, but the technical actions and decisions are resolved through commissions of experts (external to the agency) and individual evaluators who carry out their peer review work on an ad hoc basis, and who are also external to AVAP. These external evaluators are experts and independent and are the ones who supervise the documents and issue the reports.
From AVAP we are in charge of the elaboration of agreements with different local, regional, national or international entities to formally organize some of the tasks we perform. Overall, we can say that AVAP works, above all, in the supervision of all official university degrees of the Valencian higher education system, in the accreditation and merit assessment of teaching staff and in the evaluation of various research and development programs, including the annual call for research programs launched by the Consellería d’Innovació, Universitats, Ciència i Societat Digital (Department of Innovation, Universities, Science and Digital Society).
Q: What is Javier Oliver’s reflection on higher education and the current panorama?
A: The Valencian Community is an autonomous community with very powerful universities, both public and private. If we think about the situation of higher education in Spain, we can say that we have a higher education and universities that generate results far above the funding they receive compared to what happens in other countries. When it is said that Spanish universities, in general, do not appear at the top of the international rankings, we often forget about the funding they receive, and this indicator is relevant for any measurement of quality.
We are very well positioned in terms of scientific production. Political strategies have facilitated this. Among its effects, the six-year research periods have served to improve this production and they are working.
I believe that Spanish universities play a fundamental role in the development of the country. But probably, unfortunately, in many cases they do not have an appropriate image in society. The university world is often understood as a world apart, which does not know the real
problems of society. But I believe that, without a doubt, the university has a fundamental role to play. It is its responsibility to offer and develop the training of the employees of the future. To do this, the university must transform itself, it must adjust and adapt to the new reality, which is changing.
I am concerned about one of the conclusions drawn from the latest study “Via Universitària”, conducted by the “Xarxa Vives de Universitats” and published in 2022. From this study it was concluded that the student does not perceive useful to go to the classroom in their formative process. This is dangerous. On-site universities should vindicate the usefulness of going to the classroom. We need to reinforce soft skills and, in general, this learning cannot be achieved in non-classroom teaching. We must bring the reality of the social and business world closer to the university, so that the subjects are not watertight formations. Of course, it is our obligation and responsibility to ensure that students are always accompanied and guided in this training process so that their time at university is relevant in their lives. The system does not reward effort. It is important that the student detects the baggage that higher education provides to his or her life. And that they maintain contact with the university throughout the years.
I am confident that the appearance on the EQAR register will reinforce AVAP’s role and influence in contributing to the continuous and permanent improvement of higher education in the Valencian Community.