UNIL’s quality assurance system scrutinized by experts

The first institutional accreditation of UNIL was launched this year. UNIL’s quality assurance system will be reviewed by an independent agency. What is at stake? Federal and cantonal subsidies, as well as the right to call itself a « university ». Information from Véronique Kobel, head of the Quality Unit.

UNIL’s quality assurance system allow the development of quality and the improvement of its activities for the years to come. © Ievgenii Tryfonov |

Behind the scenes, the University of Lausanne is preparing to take an exam. In accordance with the Federal Law on the Promotion and Coordination of Universities (LEHE), UNIL must undergo institutional accreditation. All the country’s public and private universities « are under the same roof », says Véronique Kobel, head of the Quality Unit, a unit that reports directly to Rector Nouria Hernandez.

The approach is steered by the Swiss Agency for Accreditation and Quality Assurance (AAQ), which reports to the Swiss Accreditation Council. This joint body of the cantons and the Confederation is based in Bern.

Going through such a procedure (and its success) is necessary to retain the right to call oneself a « university » and to receive federal subsidies. Moreover, « the canton of Vaud relies on the decision of the Accreditation Council to decide on the allocation of cantonal subsidies », adds Véronique Kobel.

Autonomy and quality

First of all, a clarification. The forthcoming accreditation is for UNIL’s quality assurance system, not for its policy, strategy or choices. In the imagination, the words « quality assurance » evoke the austere world of ISO standards, which set the size of an A4 sheet of paper, for example. This kind of vision cannot be applied to a university: the AAQ is not going to require a fixed number of trees per hectare on campus.
Quality must be in line with the institution’s values and strategy, » notes Véronique Kobel. The definition of quality is therefore specific to each institution, which therefore retains its autonomy. On the other hand, it must have an internal quality assurance system in place, capable of evaluating its teaching, research and services. Moreover, this dynamic system must allow the development of quality and the improvement of its activities for the years to come.

From audit to accreditation

This is not the first time that UNIL has lent itself to such an exercise. The most recent audit of our quality assurance system took place in 2013-2014. The good news is that the current procedure has much in common with this past experience.

It all starts with a self-assessment report of about 80 pages, in which the institution demonstrates how it meets the 18 quality standards defined in the LEHE. These are set out in detail in a public document. For example, « The university […] takes economically, socially and ecologically sustainable development into account in the fulfilment of its tasks. »

Sustainable development stands among the 18 quality standards defined in the law. Here, solar panels on the roof of the Amphimax building. Photo Fabrice Ducrest © UNIL

The Quality Unit did not wait for the first working session with the AAQ, in January 2020, to launch the process. « Together with Raphaël Zumofen, the former assistant to the rector, we wrote a first version of the self-assessment report on the basis of data collected from different entities. This document was then submitted to the UNIL Management in January 2020. » This text was then put in consultation with the deans, heads of department, various advisory commissions, and key persons in the institution. At the beginning of June, an advanced version of the report will be discussed within a steering committee.

CSI : Dorigny

By the end of September, the self-assessment report will be delivered to the expert panel formed by the AAQ. They will review the report and may request additional information.

After the written report, the oral examination will take place. Does UNIL keep the promises it has set out on paper? At the end of the year, the experts, all external to UNIL, will spend two and a half days on campus. This will not be a school run, as dozens of interviews will be on their programme. « These specialists in higher education and quality in higher education will meet a lot of people, from political authorities to management, students, deans, faculty members and staff, among others, » notes Véronique Kobel.

On the basis of the self-assessment report and the information gathered during their on-site visit, the experts will in turn produce a report and they will be able to make their recommendations with a few conditions, if one or other of the standards does not seem to them to have been met. This report, as well as a proposal for an AAQ accreditation decision, will be transmitted to UNIL, which will be able to respond to it. Finally, on this basis, the Swiss Accreditation Council will make its decision, which is expected just before the summer of 2021. The accreditation obtained will be valid for 7 years.

At the end of the process, the final report of the experts will be published on the website of the Swiss Accreditation Council.

Useful exercise

This evaluation exercise of our quality assurance system seems cumbersome. But it has been part of the daily life – or almost – of the institution for a long time. « Internally, we evaluate the faculties, bachelor and master’s programmes and the central services on a regular basis, » Véronique Kobel reminds us. For example, every year, one or two faculties as well as a few departments carry out the evaluation exercise according to our internal processes. The EEEs (student evaluations of teaching) are also part of our quality assurance system.

Finally, the energy expended in the accreditation process has another utility. « The results of accreditation will be valuable for the further development of our quality assurance system, with the aim of ensuring the quality of our activities in the long term, » concludes Véronique Kobel.