Key factors in quality of masters courses identified

The Norwegian Agency for Quality Assurance in Education or NOKUT, together with its sister organisations, the Accreditation Organisation of the Netherlands and Flanders or NVAO and the Swedish Higher Education Authority or UKÄ, have identified critical factors that are important for achieving high quality in masters education in economics and molecular biology.

Researchers say the results are relevant for other academic disciplines.

Programmes from eight universities in each subject participated in the EUROMA project – Master Programme Education in a European Context – commissioned by the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research.

The project had two main objectives: to develop and test a methodology to identify subject specific critical factors (‘what matters’) for achieving high quality, and to facilitate quality enhancement through discussions and sharing of knowledge, experiences and good practice between the participating programmes.

Two reports, EUROMA – Critical Factors for Achieving High Quality in Economics Master Programmes and EUROMA – Critical Factors for Achieving High Quality in Molecular Biology Master Programmes, and two technical appendices were published earlier this month.

Eleven masters programmes in economics were examined at the universities of Lund, Uppsala, Tilburg, Amsterdam, Antwerp, Oslo, Bergen and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology or NTNU.

Thirteen masters programmes in molecular biology, system biology, biotechnology, molecular medicine and a teacher education MSc specialisation in chemistry and biology were examined at Wageningen, Lund, Uppsala and Gothenburg universities, VU Amsterdam, NTNU, UiT The Arctic University of Norway and a joint programme at VU Brussels, University of Antwerp and KU Leuven.

Approximately 550 students were admitted to the economics masters programmes and 400 to the masters programmes in biology. Six out of the 11 programmes in economics and 11 of the 13 biology programmes were taught in English.

For each participating institution the masters programmes are described in terms of the most important features, number of ECTS credits, degree of innovation and other measures of strength and distinguishing features.

In one example, from the University of Amsterdam, 85% of the graduates continue with a PhD, and, in another, the joint inter-university programme in molecular biology carried out by VU Brussels, KU Leuven and the University of Antwerp, there is a strong (though not exclusive) focus on recruiting students from developing countries.

The reports say the methodology is not connected to existing external and formal quality assurance processes in any of the participating countries, and it has not been an aim to assess or rank the programmes individually.

“The feedback we have received from the participating programmes and expert teams strongly suggests that the methodology and process constitutes a valuable supplement to traditional programme evaluations, because it provides a programme-driven platform for discussions and sharing of experiences, self-reflections, practices and ideas among the participants," both reports say.

Expert teams representing academic peers and students in economics and molecular biology were established in each of the projects, together with 10 experts in the three agencies with NOKUT Senior Advisor Stein Erik Lid as overall project manager.

The reports list three outcomes from the project: development and testing of methodology, analysis of critical quality factors for masters degree education and analysis of major differences between countries and programmes, and the self-reflections, discussions and sharing of experiences, practices and ideas among the participants.

Critical factors for quality

The critical quality factors in economics are grouped into programme design, input factors and learning processes and assessment.

The programme design is about the programme structure, organisation, scope and content and flexibility. The input factors are recruitment of motivated and talented students, teachers as quality factors and the quality assurance system. Learning processes and assessment focus on the masters research projects, innovative teaching and learning formats and feedback to and from students.

The critical quality factors in molecular biology are in programme design, divided into programme structure and organisation and flexibility; scope and content, divided into multi-or inter-disciplinarity, internationalisation and mobility of students, integration of new scientific or technological knowledge and trends, and employability and transferable skills.

The input factors in molecular biology are recruitment of motivated and talented students and teachers, teachers as quality factors, and quality assurance systems. The learning processes and assessment are focusing on the masters research projects, assessment of the masters research projects, innovative teaching and learning formats and feedback to and from students.

Study programme level critical

Stein Erik Lid, who led the EUROMA project, said that the results are relevant for other academic disciplines.

"This project has shown that at an overall level there are many similarities across borders in terms of what are considered important factors, strengths and challenges. This also applies across the disciplines,” he said.

He said the project had demonstrated that the most effective quality work takes place at the study programme level, as opposed to departmental level. The project is now focusing its monitoring on students’ learning trajectories.

Lid told University World News that a major insight from the project is that despite the majority of quality factors appearing very similar between two quite different academic disciplines – “and I expect most disciplines if we were to carry out the project for all of them” – there are major and significant differences between the fields that surfaced when the programmes started to challenge each other on their choices, strategies, goals, practices and learning outcomes.

“I believe this demonstrates the importance of discussing quality and quality development in education within the context of the academic disciplines and intended learning outcomes and involving those who actually make quality happen, namely the academic staff and students, rather than trying to identify standard measures or indicators in a one-size-fits-all approach,” he said.