Benchmarking project was carried out between the Oulu University of Applied Sciences in Finland and the Fontys University of Applied Sciences in Netherlands. The aim of the project was to benchmark learning and teaching, quality assurance and curricula development in the degree programmes. There were teachers, students and members of the support staff participating to the project. The benchmarking project was successful; the results are useful for the degree programmes and further cooperation is planned.
Background of the Benchmarking Project
Oulu University of Applied Sciences (Oulu UAS) has signed a strategic partnership agreement with the Fontys University of Applied Sciences from the Netherlands. Both universities seek close co-operation in the fields of student and staff exchange, curriculum planning and quality assurance. Oulu University of Applied Sciences educates competent professionals for the needs of working life. There are 8 000 students and 750 staff members. Fontys University of Applied Sciences is a learning community with 40 000 students and 4000 staff members.
With its focus on quality and its similar organizational structure, Fontys was a natural partner to Oulu UAS in the benchmarking project. The benchmarking project was carried out between the Degree Programme in Mechanical and Production Engineering and the Degree Programme in Business Economics from the Oulu UAS and the Degree Programme of Mechanical Engineering and the Degree Programme in International Business and Management Studies from the Fontys. The benchmarking project was funded by the Finnish Higher Education Evaluation Council.
The primary aims of the benchmarking project were to benchmark and share the best practices in defining learning outcomes in the degree programmes and to compare the processes ensuring that expertise, skills and knowledge are achieved by the students. In addition the benchmarking project promoted and strengthened the strategic partnership and cooperation, helped both universities to develop their feedback systems and prepared for the internal and external audits and accreditations.
Implementation of the Benchmarking Visit
The project was carried out by two visits to Fontys University of Applied Sciences in Eindhoven and Venlo. The first visit took place in November 2013. There were four participants from Oulu UAS: one teacher and three students from the Degree Programme in Mechanical and Production Engineering.
The purpose of the visit was to start a project between the Dutch and the Finnish students in the course called International Cooperation Innovation. Meeting face to face in the beginning was a good starting point. The students got to know each other, the campuses and were able to compare the learning and teaching methods in both countries. They also created product ideas together and agreed on contents, responsibilities and timetables of the project. International Cooperation Innovation was later successfully finished online.
The second visit took place in March 2014. There were nine participants from Oulu UAS: five teachers, two students and two members of the support staff. Two teachers were from the Degree Programme in Mechanical and Production Engineering, and three teachers and two students were from the Degree Programme in Business Economics.
When comparing the learning and teaching activities between the degree programmes, the participants used a benchmarking worksheet, which was prepared in advance. It was easy to write down the best practises, while there were tables and titles already in place in the worksheet. It is also easier to share the gained knowledge with the colleagues.
Main Results in Comparing Learning and Teaching
The teachers from the Degree Programme in Business Economics from the Oulu UAS praised the structure of the curriculum in Fontys. The whole degree programme in Fontys could be visualized very clearly on only one A4 paper copy. Every course is located to certain semester, and the semesters 5, 6 and 8 are dedicated to minor studies, work placement and graduation assignment. In Fontys there are so called semester coordinators, who have the responsibility for coordinating studies in one semester. In Oulu UAS the rough structure of the programme is described on yearly basis, but there is no scheduled forecast for the courses.
In Fontys the students have to acquire internships themselves. However, only companies with more than 15 employees will be accepted. During their work placement the students must complete a project, which the supervisor approves. Project should be useful to the employer and challenging to the student. The length and the time of the training are approximately the same in both degree programmes. In Oulu UAS the students have to acquire work placement independently and there is no limit for the number of company employees. During the training period the student does professional assignments offered by the employer.
There are clear differences between two degree programmes concerning the thesis process. In Fontys the thesis is 28 credits (max 40 pages) and in Oulu UAS it is 15 credits (no page limit). In Fontys the students work in the companies while doing their thesis. The theme of the thesis is defined by the company and it can also be confidential. There is no open access to the final thesis. In the evaluation the thesis will be presented to the company and to the assessment committee. In the Oulu UAS the thesis process involves a three-step, public seminar structure where the student shows the progress of his/her own work to the supervisor teacher and to the other students. Accepted thesis is public and it should be stored in the open national database.
The teachers from the Degree Programme in Mechanical and Production Engineering compared the structure of curriculum. In Fontys there are more project-oriented studies. Work placement is done during one semester, while the students in Oulu UAS do their work placement during two or three summers. One semester is dedicated to minor studies. For a student it is a convenient time for an international exchange. In Oulu UAS the exchange periods can vary, and there is not a clear time slot for it in the curriculum.
When comparing the education resourcing and methods there were differences and similarities. In Fontys the number of teacher’s working hour resource is at average 1 hour per 1 student and 1 credit. It is almost the same as at Oulu UAS, calculated of the teacher’s 1600 hour annual resource. The ratio of students and teachers is 20 students per one teacher at Fontys, at Oulu UAS the ratio is about 25. The normal student group size at Fontys is 30 students, it’s at the same level in Oulu UAS. At Fontys the number of contact classroom hours is smaller than at Oulu UAS, but the teachers use more resources to guide the project based learning.
In both universities there are several courses of innovation and product development. Future cooperation could be realized on those courses as the international student groups innovate, design and build prototypes together. This kind of co-operation has already been started; a mechatronic device designed in co-operation of students of Fontys and students of Oulu UAS was built and tested in the end of May 2014.
The students thought that the most potential practice to be learned from was a course called “Mini Company”. It is a mandatory part of several degree programmes in the business field. It is an excellent way to combine theory from the classes into real life and get involved in the business life where people from the different branches collaborate and are accountable for each other. Groups of students (10-15 persons) establish companies and run them independently for a year. The teachers meet the groups regularly, but they do not conduct any negotiations on behalf of the companies. Instead the students must take care of everything. At the end of the year the company has to be closed down.
The students also commented on the premises. In Fontys there were several colourful and well-equipped working spaces which are intended for both teachers and students. Teachers need also privacy but some of the work could be done in the shared space where the students could ask for consultancy. This makes teachers easier to approach and strengthens the conversation between teachers and students.
The aim of the benchmarking project was to benchmark learning and teaching, quality assurance and curricula development between the Oulu University of Applied Sciences and the Fontys University of Applied Sciences. The benchmarking visits proved to be successful, and the degree programmes can develop their actions according to the results.
Benchmarking worksheet was a useful tool for comparing activities, and it could be used also later on. The project created fruitful and multi-diciplinary interaction, mainly because there were teachers, students and the members of the support staff from different degree programmes participating to the visit. Student involvement was crucial to the success of the project, as they were actively socializing with the local students in addition to participating the official visit programme.
The results of the benchmarking project will be directly exploitable in the design process of the new curricula to be prepared in 2015. The objective in Oulu UAS is to design curricula that provide for effective completion of studies for different types of learners. It is also crucial to involve working life organizations more efficiently to the design process in order to ensure the working life correspondence of the learning outcomes.
Another aspect involves strengthening and further developing the strategic partnership between Oulu UAS and Fontys. The aim is to increase productive cooperation both in student and staff exchanges. This will boost the development of individuals’ international skills increasingly required in the globalizing societies.
Marianne Isola, Quality Coordinator, MBA, BA, Oulu University of Applied Sciences, firstname.lastname@example.org