My fifth EQUIS accreditation visit was very unlike the previous four. I have worked at Imperial College Business School for twenty years and the School has been accredited by EQUIS since 2006. I am a professional member of staff and hold the position of Director, Education Quality, which covers quality assurance, assessment, rankings and accreditations.
By Karen Tweddle
Director, Education Quality
Imperial College Business School
Our EQUIS Re-Accreditation visit was scheduled for 23-25 June 2020. This is my story.
The planning for an accreditation visit starts long before the date of the visit itself. In July 2019 we received the initial communication from the EFMD Office saying that we needed to enter the process of re-accreditation before expiry of our current accreditation. We submitted a formal letter of application and received the date of our visit in August 2019. Panel information followed in October and hotels and meeting rooms were booked. Work began on our Self-Assessment Report (SAR) – 6 months prior to the submission date of 28th April 2020 (60 days prior to the visit).
This was, however, to be an accreditation visit like no other that I’ve experienced!
On 18th March 2020, Imperial College London closed its doors because of Covid-19.
We received a communication from the EFMD office at the beginning of April asking if we wished to delay the submission of our SAR by up to 4 weeks due to the extraordinary conditions. At that point, our document was pretty much complete and was with our designers and so we decided to submit our materials by the original deadline.
EFMD’s President, Professor Eric Cornuel, released an announcement on 9th April saying: “With some exceptions, face-to-face EQUIS & EPAS accreditation and re-accreditation visits are being postponed until 31 July 2020”. We received this with mixed feelings. On the one-hand, it was a relief that our visit was not going to go ahead (from a head-in-the-sand point of view); on the other hand, the thought of deferring the visit to the new academic year, potentially into the Autumn – the busiest time of the year for us – was not a pleasant thought.
Emails continued to be exchanged with the EFMD Office following the submission of our materials at the end of April, and early May, the Dean and I were invited to attend a Zoom call with the Director of EFMD Quality Services and EQUIS to discuss the possibility of an online accreditation process.
We had the Zoom call and it was agreed that we would proceed. At that time, I believe only one other institution had had a remote visit. Another was scheduled for later that month. We would be the third institution to go through the online process.
One of our original panel members was unable to participate in the remote visit and so both the School and the remaining panel members were asked if the online visit could proceed with just 3 panel members. All agreed. This made the visit somewhat easier, as all panel members were now in a similar time-zone to the School, which certainly helped with the timing of the meetings.
On 8th May we were sent the Online Peer Review Schedule (PRV). The online version was very similar to the normal PRV but with shorter meetings, less participants and over 4 days rather than 3 (although the fourth day is just the feedback meeting). At this point, the schedule did not have meeting times; it had the duration of the meetings, but presumably the timings were not included so that there was flexibility to accommodate different time zones. We asked for our visit to take place in the mornings of each of the 4 days and this was confirmed with an updated PRV in late-May.
The EFMD Office allocated two Online Peer Review Managers (OPRMan) to the visit. These were Gabriela Hrubcova and Marielle Van Renterghem, and I worked closely with them both in advance and throughout the visit.
The requirements for the baseroom were identical to that of a normal visit with the exception that it was a remote baseroom and hard copies were not required. I used Box for this and it worked well as a data repository enables me to upload files easily and protects documents from being copied or downloaded.
The remote meetings took place using Zoom. The EFMD Office created the Zoom link (the same link was used for all visits) and the School sent meeting invites to all participants.
The Waiting Room facility on Zoom was used for all meetings. This enabled people to log-in 10-15 minutes prior to their meeting without fear that they would be joining the previous session. I joined the Waiting Room before each session (Gabriela and Marielle were always there, too), and I was given Co-Host permission so that I could admit people at the start of the meeting. We had one occasion where a meeting participant arrived an hour early, but the waiting room made this easy to resolve.
So, what worked well with our remote visit?
- From an environmental and sustainability point of view, there was no travel.
- There were budgetary savings for the School in not having to pay for Panel members travel and hospitality.
- There were time savings: no photocopying of base-room materials, no badges and nameplates for meeting attendees, no setting-up of rooms and all of the other arrangements to prepare the School for a visit.
- The technology worked well. We did not experience any technical issues. All of our meetings were in the morning at a time when internet speed in the UK seems to be better. We had a phone number to enable meeting participants to dial-in should they have internet issues but this was not used by anyone.
- In terms of meeting timings, it helped that all of our Panel were on a similar time-zone.
- The support from the EFMD Office was incredible. We had several Zoom calls in advance of the visit, had emails going back and forth and set up a Slack channel for use during the visit for instant messaging. I felt completely supported at all times.
- The EFMD Office set up a practice session (a 2-hour window) the day before the visit started so that any meeting participants could log-on and test the technology.
- The use of one Zoom link for all meetings worked well and made things simple.
- The Zoom waiting room facility worked well. Meeting participants were greeted with a branded welcome message so that they knew that they were in the right place.
- The availability of staff was a huge positive. The majority of people that I invited to attend meetings were available and this is unusual. Often people are travelling, at conferences or have other commitments that prevent them from taking part in an accreditation visit. Lockdown in the UK obviously helped with this.
- The shorter days (4 days but mornings only) made the visit manageable. More so than a normal visit which is intense from early morning until late into the evening.
- Meetings were efficiently run and ran to time.
- Participants felt that the sessions went well, and they were able to cover the same amount of material as in a normal visit and the technology did not hinder the conversations.
What did not work as well as a face-to-face visit?
- We were not able to provide a tour of our facilities, or a virtual one, because of lockdown and the College closure. We provided photos of our facilities taken prior to lockdown and shared video blogs (day/week in the life) produced by students which showcased the School.
- We were not able to provide some assessment materials because of lockdown. Examination scripts were locked in offices during a time when the College was closed and so we could not access.
- We were not able to provide hard copies of our SAR. Even if printers had been open during lockdown in the UK, the Panel members would not have been able to receive them if their place of work was closed.
- Some participants commented that conversations were more difficult and did not flow as well as in face-to-face sessions. Everyone is on mute and when a question is asked there is an etiquette delay whilst participants wait to see who will respond and then unmute.
- Fewer people take part in the meetings. For the Executive Committee meetings, a maximum of 5 members was specified when normally our entire Management Board would attend. The Selected Programme meeting was only supposed to be 3 participants but we asked for this to be extended so that we could include our Programme Team and representatives from Admissions, Marketing and Careers. The faculty, student, alumni and corporate connections meetings were larger with up to 8 participants in each.
While everyone in the School spoke highly of the remote visit, there was an underlying feeling that something was missing. The nuances added by informal discussions, body language, the dinners/evening receptions, and corridor chats definitely influenced the relationship-building side of the visit. It is difficult to put a value on those face-to-face interactions, and it will certainly make us appreciate those in the future. If remote visits continue, then ways to replicate the informal engagement need to be imagined. Virtual coffee chats, preliminary briefings to discuss who the Panel are going to meet that day, or debriefs without an agenda over a drink at the end of each day may be ways to do this. The challenge will be to ensure that these activities are not perceived to be a waste of time or become mechanical. We will have to accept some trial and error.
The highlight of the visit for me was getting to work so closely with the EFMD Office. In twenty years of working in accreditation, I can say that I had never got to know the EFMD staff. There had been the occasional email when setting up a visit but no real relationship had been established. I wish to extend a huge thanks to Gabriela and Marielle for their support, to the Panel and to all of the Imperial College Business School staff too for making this remote visit such a success.