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Elaine El-Khawas is professor of education policy at the George Washington University (Washington DC). She has written extensively on issues of accreditation and quality assurance, including analyses of alternative methods for assessing quality, the role of peer review and comparisons of international strategies for quality assurance. Dr El-Khawas, a sociologist, earned her master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Chicago. She has served as professor of higher education at the University of California, Los Angeles, as director of the ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education, and as vice-president for policy analysis and research at the American Council on Education. She is a former president of the Association for the Study of Higher Education, a member of UNESCO’s scientific committee for Europe and North America, vice-president of the Society for Research in Higher Education (UK), and is on the board of several international journals, including Quality in Higher Education. She has been a consultant and advisor to the OECD, UNESCO, the IIEP, the World Bank and the Association of African Universities.
Elaine El-Khawas talked to GUNI about the differences between the accreditation and quality assurance systems in the US, Canada and the rest of the world. She also talked about the future changes in the US quality assurance system.
“Trust, legitimacy and understanding are the key elements for any higher education accreditation system”
What are the three main similarities and differences between the Unites States and Canadian accreditation and quality assurance systems?
There are some important similarities. In both countries the system focuses on programs as a strong element of accreditation. Both countries have good processes and a very strong tradition. In this regard, there has been a method of revising accreditation standards over time, and if people have disagreements they can fix it within the structure of accreditation. The result is that people in both countries accept accreditation.
A difference between these accreditation systems is that in the US, in addition to a focus on program accreditation, we do also have a very strong focus on institutional accreditation, while the system in Canada does not. Although in the US sometimes this may appear as a redundant process, the system is served by having both approaches.
Institutional accreditation is often focused on management. In institutional accreditation you will need to know if institutions have good planning processes, how do they allocate resources, and if they have good information about the outcomes for students. Those are important questions that you can not always look at if you only have a program by program process.
However, there may be reasons behind the Canadian approach. In Canada, where the system is primarily program focused, the majority of universities are small and the provinces have only few institutions (in some cases only one), so perhaps a program based accreditation system fits the particular context.
What are the advantages of an accreditation system based on non-governmental accreditation agencies?
Well, you have to introduce the political dimension to understand why non-governmental agencies are important. In a country where accreditation is set as part of the ministry of higher education, each time there is a change in the executive the minister brings its own agenda. The new minister may decide that they do not want an accreditation system, or that they will cover one or another aspect. This situation may cause a lack of continuity and credibility. If you are a rector or vice-rector you will look over your shoulder and ask yourself if you should follow all the given directions or not, because you will not know if there may be another change of minister in a short time. Consequently the long-term credibility of the process can be weakened by the politics of which government is in charge.
On the other side, non-governmental agencies will have responsibility to plan into the future independently. And we need to take into account that these agencies will also have to respond to the public, as politicians do, but in this case there is more continuity. This gives them greater trust. I advocate non-governmental accreditation agencies, absolutely.
How do you think the US university model will be in the next 10 or 15 years? What will the model be like in the rest of the world?
In the US, because we have had accreditation processes for more that 100 years, this is a very senior profession. And because people that are working in accreditation have been aware of the system for more than 20 or 30 years, there is a lot of continuity and a desire to keep the same processes. However, there will be changes.
One significant change is that all of the university reviews in the future will be submitted by universities electronically. This has implications, now that you can have electronic submissions and video conferencing, there will be less time involved in the logistics needed for organising a review. The reviews can then take place every three months instead of every five years, with less visiting than now.
Another change is that we will have better systems to know and track the progress of students, aspect that has been always the weak part of accreditation. For example, it is important to have better information when a student leaves a program and what are the problems in each stage of the process of study. In the future, accreditation can focus even more on student progress, not only on what the program offers but on what the student experiences. It is exciting, accreditation is trying to make sure that students have a good experience and a good outcome and there is nothing better that this.
For the rest of the world it is a different game. In many countries of the world the problem is the lack of trust in accreditation. For example, the government of some countries may announce that they will establish a new accrediting body, but often the problem is that there is no trust on it, and neither understanding on what accrediting is. Thus, there has to be a process for understanding accreditation, and for developing trust and legitimacy for the accrediting process from an ethical perspective. This will be very important to build the credibility.
This situation does not leave room in many countries for innovation in accreditation, because you do not want to confuse people while you are trying to get acceptance. Thus, in the first stage of the process it is necessary to be very conventional. One sees that many countries may feel as if they are copying the model of other countries. An academic from Nigeria spoke about customising the Bologna process; part of this is to borrow the legitimacy of the Bologna process to build up legitimacy within the sub-Saharan Africa. It is necessary and practical.
¿What role do accreditation agencies have to ensure quality in private institutions?
There is a role for private institutions in the higher education system, but there should be constraints. Any university that promises young people a given result for studying “x” amount of time should have a responsibility to accomplish this objective. Universities should not be free to do anything they wish. Quality assurance and an accrediting agency should be able to tell a private university about the need to have long term staff, and not just people who are working late at night after their day job is completed. Some countries have allowed private universities to open closed programs, to cancel programs or to change the curriculum, just because it has made sense to them. On the other hand, a university needs to have people who do planning and evaluation of courses for improvement. This kind of structures for quality must be at any institution. Just because you are a private university you should not have total freedom.
This article is based on a conversation held with the GUNI Secretariat. It is not a literal transcription of the interview. The full interview is shown in the video that accompanies the article.