Behind each class in the college, each exam and each practice there are several independent institutions helping to ensure that these university activities are developed according to the official academic plans provided.
These bodies ensure that the subjects are taught as dictated by the study program, that the assessment tests are put into practice in accordance with the established standards or that the level of the teachers reaches that required for the subject. They even make sure that the website provides prospective students with all the information they need to decide on a career at that university.
“Higher education in our country is highly regulated, which always guarantees a high level,” says Ignacio Hierro, director of the Quality Department of the International University of La Rioja (UNIR).
In Spain, it is the National Agency for Quality Assessment and Accreditation (Aneca) throughout the state territory and its autonomous counterparts in each region who distribute this work of evaluation, certification and accreditation of the teachings, the teaching staff and the universities, whether public or private.
His work is framed within the European Higher Education Area (EHEA), a project started in 1999 with the Bologna Process to harmonize the educational systems of the member countries.
“This program has fostered the creation of a culture of quality that did not exist before,” explains Miguel Ángel Sastre, Vice-Rector for Quality at the Complutense University of Madrid and former Director of Teaching and Assessments at Aneca.
In addition to these official controls, each university may have its own internal quality assurance systems. “It is something voluntary, but one that facilitates the evaluations of the agencies”, recognizes Hierro.
These quality agencies act in two moments: when a university intends to create a new degree and periodically once it has been launched.
In order to launch any new official study, be it a degree, a master’s degree or a doctorate, the university must create a report in which it collects all its operations.
The academic and scientific justification (the scientific principles on which it is based. they do not exist, they will not be able to have university rank), the competences that the graduates will acquire, the study plan with the training activities, the teaching methodologies and the evaluation systems, in addition to the material resources: the facilities, the virtual platforms or the measures cybersecurity, among other aspects.
Those instructions to build some studies will be evaluated by the corresponding agency. If the university has its own in the autonomous community where the university is located, it will be responsible for the assessment. If not, Aneca will.
There are currently ten territorial agencies in Spain: in Andalusia, Aragon, the Canary Islands, Castilla y León, Catalonia, the Valencian Community, Galicia, the Balearic Islands, Madrid and the Basque Country, which are coordinated by the Network of University Quality Agencies (REACU).
These bodies are registered in the European Register of Quality Assessment Agencies (EQAR) and are certified every four years by the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA), an organization that represents EHEA agencies, in order to operate.
Once the report has been analyzed, the agency must issue a technical report that will be evaluated by a commission appointed by the Council of Universities, a body dependent on the Ministry of Universities responsible for coordination and cooperation between higher centers, whose task is to ratify the report.
“The memory, once approved, works as a contract with society. The university cannot get out of what that document dictates ”, says Hierro. In case of needing any change, it would be necessary to request it again from the agency.
Three years after the establishment of the degree or doctorate and two years after, in the case of masters, the agencies make a first analysis of how it is developing based on documentation provided by the university. And at six and four, respectively, there is a more in-depth evaluation.
A commission made up of academics and doctoral students from the same fields, but from other universities, travels to the centers to gather information. “It is an authentic consulting work, an accompaniment that greatly benefits the centers and the students”, describes Miguel Ángel Sastre.
It depends on the report of this evaluation panel if the title continues. “In case of losing its official validity, students who have started can finish it, but new students will not be able to access. The university is obliged to close the degree ”, he adds. “Before reaching that point, it is possible to present allegations”, clarifies Sastre.
To prevent this from happening, universities have quality departments. Their goal is that the performance of their degrees is not separated from the training project approved by the agencies. That is the work of Hierro in UNIR.
“We are like internal policemen”, explains the person in charge of the Internal Quality Assurance System (SAIC) of the online university. Its quality department is one of the largest with 30 professionals. Both the national and regional agencies have established a reference framework for universities to draw up their internal quality assurance systems. “If you get it, it means that with your guarantee system you are doing a good control of your studies”, acknowledges Sastre
For this reason, these organizations give a vote of confidence to the universities that have their own control mechanisms, through Institutional Accreditation, a government credential that has been obtained by faculties, centers or schools since 2018.
To achieve it, half of the degrees from that center they must have obtained the agency’s periodic renewal credential —which is carried out every four or six years—, in addition to having obtained the center’s certification of the implementation of the Internal Quality Assurance System.
In this way, the other half will be acquired automatically and the center will be considered fully aligned with the quality principles required in higher education.
“It is a method that emphasizes the autonomy of the universities to maintain their educational levels and that saves resources since it facilitates the evaluation work of the agencies”, argues Federico Morán, director of the Madri + d Foundation for Knowledge, Madrid’s quality agency, responsible for the regional university system, the largest in the country.
According to the Ministry of Science, Innovation and Universities, of the total of 1,898 state university centers, less than 7% have obtained Institutional Accreditation. Two of UNIR’s faculties have achieved this seal of quality: Business and Communication, in 2019, and Education in 2020, the only 100% online in this field.
Online universities must go through the same processes as face-to-face ones. “When evaluating we do not distinguish”, assures Morán. But they do pay attention to their interactive digital platforms offering the student and the teacher the same benefits that they would have in person.
Those that operate internationally, such as UNIR, with more than 50,000 students worldwide and 125 accredited degrees, will also have to undergo the certifications of the organizations of the other countries in which their studies are implanted.