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Report 2010: 7 R

The National Agency's appraisals of entitlement to award two-year master's degrees in 2010

This is a summary in English. The report is available only in Swedish.

The appraisals of the panels of experts have been based on the aspects and criteria listed in Högskoleverkets anvisningar vid prövning av masterexamensrätt — för ansökan senast 15 oktober 2009 [The National Agency's instructions for appraisal of entitlement to award two-year master's degrees — for applications no later than 15 October 2009]. These are: the domain in which the qualification will be awarded, resources (teachers' qualifications, teaching capacity and infrastructure), close links to third-cycle programmes, programme design and quality assurance.

The higher education institution's applications, the organisation of the site visits and the templates for the written appraisals by assessors have followed these aspects and criteria, which has simplified procedures and increased comparability. One important element in my task as chairperson has been to endeavour to ensure uniformity in the appraisals of the experts. Here the templates for their written appraisals have provided important support. Even though the written appraisals are based on a shared template they vary, both in terms of scope and content. The experts have, for instance, chosen different ways of focusing on the merits of programmes in their separate appraisals. Using the same templates has not primarily been intended to ensure that the appraisals are laid out similarly but rather to make it easier for the experts to formulate their opinions and guarantee quality.

In brief, the process consisted of the experts sending their written appraisals to the National Agency's project group and to me in my capacity as chairperson. I and the National Agency's project group have then compared all the written appraisals to ensure that aspects and criteria have been dealt with on the same terms. The experts have subsequently been provided with our feedback. With regard to the aspect of close links to third-cycle programmes it is important to understand how the economic circumstances of university colleges that have to develop their research environments compare with those of the universities. This makes the work of these institutions on the adoption of focus and profiles as well as their links with research environments at other institutions particularly interesting.

What is appraised?


The National Agency's instructions make it clear that entitlement to award two-year master's degree applies to one domain, but is exemplified in the applications of the higher education institutions by programmes in one or several main fields of study. The instructions also lay down that:

"The main field of study is related in its turn to advanced study in the two-year master's degree(s) the higher education institution intends to award. The requirements laid down in the qualifications ordinance for award of a two-year master's degree demand at least 60 credits for specialised study in the principal field of study." “Appraisal concerns whether the higher education institution fulfils the conditions required for it to be able to assume responsibility for the rights and obligations entailed by entitlement to award a degree in the field applied for. The higher education institution is appraised both in terms of the quality requirements that apply in the field applied for and also the requirements related to the institution's own internal quality assurance procedures."

What is a field and what is a principal field?


The concept of field was interpreted as follows for the 2007 round of applications and was then used for the first and subsequent appraisals of entitlement to award two-year master's degrees:
  • A field is smaller than a disciplinary domain
  • A field is larger or as large as a main field of study
  • A main field of study is larger/broader/more interdisciplinary than or the same as a main subject
Even though neither the concept of disciplinary domain nor main subject can now be found in the Higher Education Act or Higher Education Ordinance, this interpretation gives some indication of the relationships envisaged. A field does not therefore have to identical to the main fields of study in which a programme is offered but can be broader. The higher education institution must, however, make it clear to the experts how the field forms a coherent unit on the basis of the different quality aspects. In this year's appraisals there still seemed to be some uncertainty in the higher education institutions about the interpretation of field and main field of study. This uncertainty becomes clear when examples of two-year master's programmes in a main field of study are given the same name as the field even though the programme has a different focus from the field as a whole. Admittedly the higher education institution decide themselves on what name to give the main field of study and the degree programme as a whole, but if potential students are to be able to form a reasonable impression of a programme's contents, it is the responsibility all higher education institution to “label" them clearly for their students.

Applications for different purposes


It is interesting to see how the higher education institutions have opted to interpret the National Agency's aspects and criteria both in their applications and during site visits. One of my reflections is that the higher education institutions seem to have submitted their applications with different intentions. I have identified three different ones.

In some applications a teacher team has been created in the higher education institution which has a clearly stated joint ambition and desire linked to the needs of the surrounding community and where advantage has been taken of the institution's ability to interact with the community, its focus and profile. These applications demonstrate clearly how the institution is taking advantage of the benefits that university colleges may enjoy in comparison to universities in terms of flexibility, innovation and interaction. In adopting this role the university colleges will become important and interesting supplements to the universities in the system of academic education in Sweden.  The risk of adopting a firm profile is, of course, that the higher education institution becomes vulnerable.

Another intention may be to apply for a large number of entitlements to award two-year master's degrees as a preliminary to later applications for entitlement to award a number of third-cycle qualifications. This naturally involves the risk that each application and field will be a narrow one and that the higher education institution may then find it difficult to maintain an adequate number of teachers with the appropriate qualifications. Another obvious risk in offering many two-year masters' programmes is not being able to recruit enough students to make them financially and qualitatively justifiable. If there are recruitment problems for existing one-year master's programmes in a field, it is worth reflecting on how it will be possible to recruit students to new two-year master's programmes in the same field.

A third form of application may be based on the desire of a group of teachers to obtain entitlement in a field in order to enable as many researchers as possible to participate. This has led in its turn to broad fields, which need not be negative per se. Problems sometimes arise however when the contents of the programme to be offered are as broad as the field itself. In these broad two-year master's programmes there is risk of the higher education institution failing to live up to the requirements regarding level, progression and specialisation, i.e. that that programme will be at an advanced level, involves progression in relation to first-cycle programmes and within the second cycle and also that it contains the degree of progression required for a two-year master's degree. Lack of specialisation will, in its turn, result in the failure of the programme to qualify students for admission to third-cycle programmes.

The choice of grounds on which to base an application for entitlement to award a two-year master's degree is ultimately a governance issue.

The relation between appraisals for entitlement to award two-year master's degrees and the National Agency's evaluations


The aspects and criteria on which appraisals of entitlement to award two-year master's degrees are based have been worked out by the National Agency and match the quality assurance system that has been used up to now for both the evaluations of subjects and programmes and the audits undertaken of the higher education institutions' quality assurance procedures. To what degree the National Agency's new quality assurance system will fit in with the appraisals of entitlement to award two-year master's degrees remains to be seen.
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