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CHILE
Urgent need to strengthen university accreditation
In recent weeks, the Chilean university community has been shaken by a scandal concerning the National Commission of Accreditation. The Prosecution Office surprised the public when it arrested the former president of the accreditation commission, two former rectors of private universities and the universities' owner.

The charges are serious: money laundering, bribery and taking kickbacks. New investigations are under way to find out whether other university authorities were involved in these illicit activities.

To further complicate the situation, a former executive secretary of the commission stated in an interview with the media that he had received phone calls from at least one rector of a public university requesting “help in this accreditation process”.

At the same time, the Chilean Comptroller’s Office issued an audit report of the National Commission of Accreditation – known by its Spanish acronym CNA – in which it indicated a lack of control procedures and assessment plans and a conflict of interests. In general, it found a failure to comply with the law on Quality Assurance of Higher Education (No. 20197).

Concerns

Concerns about the operations of this official body go back a long way.

The Chilean academic community is very small, and it is difficult to create peer review committees in the context of such close connections and bias. Conflicts of interest abound, but the law ignores this.

Another issue is the lack of information available for students and the commission alike. Students, for instance, have very little information about their university when they enrol, and the commission and Ministry of Education have only recently had sufficient data about the financial situation of the universities involved in the accreditation process.

It is questionable, therefore, how far the CNA can guarantee that institutions involved in the accreditation process have the necessary mechanisms for assuring stability and institutional feasibility.

The legislation establishes that accredited tertiary institutions will receive public funds through loans for helping students whose families cannot afford fees. This has created a perverse incentive for some tertiary institutions to get more money out of the state. This becomes more of a concern in the light of the institutional weakness and corruption discovered in the accreditation commission.

The CNA has two main responsibilities: (i) to deliver ‘accredited’ quality to institutions with serious weaknesses, which do not meet even the minimum standards and (ii) to enable, through this stamp of ‘accreditation’, students of a tertiary institution to seek state funding.

In the cases analysed, these responsibilities were not efficiently monitored. The CNA gave accreditation for one year only, which is too short a period to make improvements or achieve the required quality standards, in part due to pressure to cover fees for poorer students.

Ethnical accreditation needed

The tertiary system in Chile requires a serious, responsible and highly ethical regulatory framework for its universities.

Higher education institutions are key to economic and social development and are one of the pillars on which the steady growth of a country stands. The government should ensure the quality of the teaching-learning process for all its citizens and that it not only meets the minimum standards but is also internationally competitive.

Any new accreditation system must be properly enforced and be suitably equipped with the relevant legal provisions for its mission, for the benefit of the whole country.

Chile's new proposed law on quality assurance calls for the number of commissioners to decrease from 15 to seven. They will be selected through public competition and be dedicated on a full-time basis to this task. This seems a step in the right direction and there are already other institutions, the Central Bank, for example, that use a similar system.

The process would be more demanding than previously and the categories of ‘accredited’ and ‘not accredited’ institutions would be redefined every six years, according to the proposals.

Moreover, minimum requirements for applying for accreditation by academic and financial institutions would be laid down. Careers in medicine and teaching would only be accredited by the CNA in order to homogenise the standards that are required.

I would add other suggestions:

  • Linking the delivery of public resources to accredited institutions will only be a positive measure if the CNA can ensure that its rulings are beyond reasonable doubt.
  • Regarding peer reviewers, I think it would be important to establish a strict selection system that clearly defines incompatibilities and that includes a significant percentage of national scholars residing abroad and academics from other countries with recognised expertise in the field. This measure would address the closed nature of the current system.
  • Another idea is that international agencies would be allowed to be established in the country for institutional accreditation processes at undergraduate and postgraduate levels.
  • A sustained technical training programme for members of the CNA and an induction process for commissioners should be implemented.

These measures seem likely to remedy the crisis of confidence that the accreditation system is currently facing. The scandal has undermined confidence in all the country’s accredited institutions, whether public or private.

For this reason, it would be very useful to spend minimal time consulting various stakeholders on the development of consensual transition rules and to move forward with restructuring the CNA as soon as possible.

* Carlos Olivares is a senior higher education consultant and served as professor and researcher at the University of Talca and the University of Antofagasta in Chile. He also held positions in the top administration in three universities in Chile. The views expressed here are personal. E-mail: colivares66@gmail.com.
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