Quality control in higher education in the Netherlands and Flanders: follow-up audit 2013

Report by the Belgian Court of Audit and the Netherlands Court of Audit to the Flemish Parliament and the House of Representatives of the Netherlands States General

This report presents a follow-up to our 2008 audit of quality control in higher education in the Netherlands and Flanders. We determined whether the new accreditation framework for qualifications considered the desired final level of attainment and whether it was used. We also examined whether the main problems in the former accreditation system had been overcome. The conclusions and recommendations on the Dutch higher education system are presented below. Findings on the Flemish system are presented in a separate report


Attention to content and final level of attainment, reasons for opinions

The Netherlands paid more attention in 2008-2012 to the substantive quality of education and – partly because of the problems at Inholland University of Applied Sciences – to the final level of attainment. But questions can still be asked about the reasons for the opinions given by both review committees and the NVAO accreditation organisation. There is therefore a risk that low-scoring aspects of a course remain underexposed. The NVAO is using its new powers to request additional information but it is not using them in full.

Harmonisation of quality control

Difference in quality control between the Netherlands and Flanders are getting bigger because ministers focused more on the specific problems and objectives of their own countries when working out the new system. A shared starting point is important because the Netherlands and Flanders wish to recognise each other's qualifications.

Costs and lead times

We made a rough estimate of the cost of the accreditation system: €25 million per annum. The information available, however, is very limited, especially regarding the internal costs incurred by education institutions. There are still no indications that higher education institutions have achieved the targeted cost saving of 25%. On account of the problems at Inholland, the cost of implementing the accreditation system does not seem to be declining. Administrative costs remain high, chiefly because the institutions themselves need to provide so much information.

The time needed for the NVAO to deal with accreditation requests has been longer than a year in recent years. Although it has since declined, it was still about six months at the end of 2012. This is longer than legally prescribed but is within the lead times agreed by the umbrella organisations for higher education.

Bill to strengthen quality control in higher education

The Minister of Education, Science and Culture (OCW) and the NVAO took measures in 2011 and 2012 to strengthen the reasons for opinions expressed in the accreditation process. In our opinion, the measures should be given a chance to prove themselves in practice before the Bill on strengthening quality control in higher education comes into force. In our opinion, the additional measures in the Bill will help further strengthen quality control.


  • The Netherlands and Flanders should give greater priority to harmonising the organisation of their external quality control, partly with a view to recognising each other's qualifications. 
  • In particular, the Netherlands and Flanders should learn more from each other's experiences and from the evaluation of the first accreditation round and the start of the second round, in part with regard to clustered reviews and consideration for graduation work.
  • The NVAO should better control the time needed to deal with accreditation requests.
  • External opinion forming could be improved by:  
    •  introducing clustered reviews for higher vocational education, too, and possibly making them compulsory; 
    •  assessing accreditation of the final level of attainment and the method of examination separately; 
    •  having the NVAO make more use of its existing powers to ask additional questions or to reassess dissertations.

We also think the institutions and courses should have more insight into the quality of the education provided and account for it publicly.


Response of the Minister of OCW

The minister responded positively to our conclusions on the new accreditation system. She commented, however, on the calculation of the administrative burden. She thought the information available was inadequate to make a quantitative estimate of the costs. The minister agreed that the measures taken should be given a chance to prove themselves in practice. She appreciated the fact that we had looked at whether additional measures in the Bill could help strengthen quality control. She will discuss lead times with the NVAO.

Response of the NVAO

The NVAO accepts the conclusions of the follow-up audit and largely agrees with the recommendations. The NVAO will consider how it can help reduce the administrative burden. Lead times are another matter for the NVAO. The NVAO has taken internal measures to improve its monitoring of lead times. With regard to harmonisation between the Netherlands and Flanders, at first sight more differences seem to have arisen. There are still differences in the systems' time limits and statutory consequences but differences in both substantive and procedural aspects are now smaller, according to the NVAO.

Court of Audit's afterword

The Netherlands Court of Audit is looking forward with interest to the position taken on the Bill. It is also closely following developments in the way in which institutions account for the quality of education. The Court agrees with the Minister of OCW and the directors of the NVAO that the very limited information available on administrative burdens permits little more than a rough estimate. The estimate, however, is indicative of the financial extent of the administrative burden. Ultimately, the quality of the education provided is what matters. The Court of Audit thinks it is important that the accreditation system enables the institutions to improve their accountability for the quality of education. We therefore think it is positive that the minister sees it as her task to encourage institutions to improve their accountability.