Ministry changes rules on course inspections after diploma scandal

Independent investigations into journalism diplomas awarded at Windesheim University of Applied Sciences in The Netherlands have found that one in four students should not actually have been awarded one.

The scandal has prompted the government to move quickly to protect the reputation of Dutch universities by bringing in new measures to prevent such a lapse happening again.

In what is seen as one of the biggest failures of quality assurance in Netherlands higher education, two independent committees that looked into the work of all students who had graduated from Windesheim in the past two years concluded that 86 out of 360 students should not have received a diploma.

The students will be allowed to keep their diplomas, since it is not legally possible to rescind them. They will be given the opportunity to follow a masterclass provided by the University of Applied Sciences with the help of the student union, ISO.

ISO chair Sebastiaan Hameleers said: “We’re shocked by the high percentage and that there have been problems regarding quality for such a long time.”

The independent committees were formed after it became known in December that the Dutch and Flemish accreditation committee NVAO had questioned the quality of the journalism course. The NVAO protects the quality of Dutch higher education.

The independent committees concluded that the biggest quality failures were in the areas of research and writing. “Surprisingly, there wasn’t enough focus on these issues by teachers,” said Hameleers.

Windesheim is working on a recovery plan, which will be presented next month. If they do not manage to lift the quality to a higher level within a year the journalism course will be shut down.

The low performance of the journalism course was partly made possible because there wasn’t a strict inspection. Course quality was mainly checked by the institution itself. If the NVAO wanted to check the quality of papers written by students, the university could even select the papers the committee would see.

Even before the reports from the two committees were made public, Halbe Zijlstra, the undersecretary of education, had changed the procedure.

NVAO can now select papers to check the quality of a course. And the Ministry of Education can also examine a university when it suspects something is wrong. In the past this could only be done after teachers or students raised the alarm.

Zijlstra said: “These new measures should make it possible to detect quality problems in higher education and handle them at an earlier stage. They are essential for quality assurance of higher education in The Netherlands.”

It is not the first time there has been a controversy about diplomas in Dutch higher education. In 2010 diploma fraud was reported at another university of applied sciences, Inholland, and Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences is currently under investigation.

Hameleers said it was important to stress that there are problems with only a few courses.

“The majority of the other courses in The Netherlands stand for high-quality education and research. And the new measures taken by the government are excellent. They will make sure quality keeps to a high level.”