The ZHAW quality strategy - between measurable factors and variable experiences

The ZHAW quality strategy was established in 2015. This strategy aims, on the one hand, to be flexible enough to leave enough space for the nature and transition of each School and, on the other hand, to be clear enough to work in practice. How can this be achieved?

The quality strategy of the ZHAW consists of 70 different quality standards and criteria, the majority of which are very openly formulated. For example, one such standard regarding teaching and learning states: “The study programmes offer transformative and transnational realms of experience and forms of training”. This kind of openness in connection with quality standards may seem surprising at first, but in fact it very much pertains to the very nature of a university. For at educational institutions such as the ZHAW, subjects and fields of knowledge develop very fast at times, and the environment, i.e. students, society, and businesses, are subject to constant change. In addition, experts working in a university environment need ample space to adapt to social, economic and didactic changes. What is more, the broad range of subjects taught at the ZHAW makes for a tremendous diversity, which also requires space.

“For this reason, at a university like the ZHAW, quality standards and criteria must be formulated in a comparatively open manner. In practice, this requires clearly formulated guidelines with enough incentive, but few exact specifications on how to reach objectives,” as Karin Mairitsch sums it up. She is the person responsible for quality development at the ZHAW and is significantly involved in the implementation of the quality strategy 2015-25.

Quality - measurable or not?

The question of just how tangible or measurable quality can be has long been discussed. The ZHAW quality strategy answers this question in its own way, with the theory that quality involves development and culture, which have a concrete starting point and an open form. There are indeed areas, such as gender distribution, where statements can be made on the basis of figures. While Mairitsch maintains that a factual basis is essential, she also stresses the need for interpretative work. This includes work performed by peers in a peer review process, in which colleagues come to the ZHAW and look at self-evaluation reports and fact-based assessments of strengths and weaknesses with ZHAW employees. The peers work in the same subject area, share the same professional status and can also be called critical friends - they are critical, yet well-meaning. Peers commit themselves to providing an evaluation made independently and in the best knowledge and conscience of, for example, an organisation’s level of maturity.

First of all the Executive Board evaluates itself

But how does such an evaluation work exactly? From mid-2016 to approximately mid-2017, the ZHAW examined its own Executive Board. This process actually started with the Executive Board evaluating itself since, according to the ZHAW quality strategy, self-evaluation is the first step in any evaluation. This evaluation includes a report, an assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the unit under evaluation and, if need be, possible measures for improvement. Therefore, first of all, a self-critical look in the mirror is taken, and then this point of view is discussed, reflected upon, and, with regard to the evaluations and any measures to be taken, a consensus is sought. In a next step, the peers become involved in the process. They discuss the self-evaluation report among themselves. In a final stage, everyone looks together at where there is still potential and where the challenges lie.

The major challenge of such procedures is not to overwhelm the unit under evaluation with the amount and diversity of the observations. This means that the insights gained through self-evaluation must be narrowed down to the most important phenomena. “The effectiveness of the reflective process and the measures derived from it is not related to its quantity, but to its accuracy in tackling the core problem,” Mairitsch explains. The concrete strategic focus is only subsequently developed by working together with the peers. The quintessence of this evaluation process is integrated into a final report, possibly along with a concept for any measures to be taken.

European Standards and the HEdA as a basis

It goes without saying that the ZHAW quality strategy did not come about on its own. It is based on European and national standards, as well as on the internal standards of the University. The educational policy is based on European agreements set by the Bologna Declaration and its follow-up conferences. The system works like a Russian Matryoshka doll. The largest doll represents the European guidelines: the standards in the European Higher Education Area (EHEA). Here, the principle objectives are to strengthen confidence in higher education institutions and make the outcome of their performance comparable with each other by setting common standards, processes and guidelines of quality management. In short, a Greek degree must also be recognised in Poland. The Higher Education Act (HEdA) and the national accreditation guidelines are concerned with precisely this. They are based on the European guidelines and formulated specifically for Switzerland. Within this framework lies the ZHAW strategy 2015-25, which again includes the ZHAW quality strategy. Within the quality strategy, the implementation concepts of the individual Schools are to be found, and in them any derivation of individual organisational units, until at long last – at the centre of the doll – each and every one of us, with our respective quality-oriented services, can be found.

However, with its quality strategy the ZHAW is following no ordinary path - neither in the way in which it is dealing with existing guidelines, nor in its system of approach. As Mairitsch puts it in a nutshell, “Education is something that is bestowed upon us and is by no means to be taken for granted. What we learn from it is called knowledge-driven experience. Education challenges us to stay on the move and to keep up-to-date with developments. And we as a university must allow some space for this.” This approach goes beyond the European Standards and the HEdA in some ways. This is mainly because the ZHAW strategy, and with it the notion of quality, are courageously forward-looking. For instance, at the ZHAW, being skills-oriented entails far more than just a formal education.

“On admission and during the course of the study programme, credits may be given for knowledge and skills acquired non-formally and informally, provided that they fit into the framework of the study programme. Whenever possible, individualised educational pathways are supported.” Research at the ZHAW also aims to gain impetus from and to give impetus back to society following this basic concept of quality culture. Here, the quality standard states: “Research contributes to the transformation and sustainability of society”.