The shifting terrain of higher education worldwide is challenging quality assurance and accreditation professionals to examine how they can adjust or transform traditional practices and policies while also preserving core academic values.
That was one of the overriding messages to emerge out of back-to-back conferences on higher education last week in Washington DC, which drew more than 400 people from 30 countries including Japan, Egypt, Croatia, Israel, Jamaica, India and China.
While the theme for both meetings was the changing landscape of higher education, “we went beyond change to acknowledge disruption", said Judith Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation or CHEA, which hosted the gathering along with CHEA's International Quality Group or CIQG.
"And that's disruption of all kinds – in the political space, the policy space, what's going on around the world."
Not business as usual
The United Kingdom's Brexit vote and Donald Trump's unexpected win in the United States presidential election are just two high-profile examples of how business as usual has been turned on its ear.
Corruption in higher education is nothing new, but no country is immune from it, and the potential consequences of fraudulent research, phony credentials or stolen exam answers can reverberate well beyond geographic borders in an increasingly interdependent society.
On a somewhat more upbeat note, an explosion of innovation has increased opportunity and access to higher education around the world. But it also has thrown into question the relevance of traditional methods of teaching and learning.
Amid all the upheaval, one thing is certain – higher education is more important than ever.
Jamil Salmi, former coordinator for tertiary education at the World Bank, reminded conference attendees that higher education lies at the heart of the United Nations sustainable development agenda.
Salmi urged attendees and the accreditation bodies they represent to embrace the emerging alternatives to traditional providers, new kinds of non-degree credentials and new ways of teaching for a new generation of students, who grew up with the internet, Facebook and smart phones. Salmi said his grandson's first spoken word was ‘iPad’.
The reason is simple: there really is no other option.
Technological innovation is "really changing the way [today's students] access information, the way they learn, the way they manage expectations," Salmi said. "We live now in beta mode. We are constantly asked to learn something new."
Many countries have turned to CIQG's seven-point statement of principles for guidance during such tumultuous times, Eaton said.
The principles, developed in 2015, offer a global framework around which a diverse array of higher education systems and national and regional agencies can organise quality assurance policies and address change.
They were developed in response to greater student mobility, a stronger emphasis on faculty exchange and cross-border collaboration and growing reliance on online and web-based education, all of which has underscored the need to find common ground on matters of educational quality.
Over the course of the week, quality assurance professionals shared insights, success stories, frustrations and advice on emerging trends. Among issues that were addressed:
The student voice
One recurring theme suggests a growing interest in capturing and incorporating a student perspective on the quality of their education.
Salmi noted, for example, that student engagement surveys, first devised in the United States, have spread to Australia, Canada, across Europe and into China, South Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. A government-funded initiative in Scotland trains student leaders to participate in campus reviews of quality assurances.
"They have perspectives and opinions which are interesting and relevant," said Manja Klemencic, a lecturer in higher education at Harvard University. "If students are given a meaningful role within the process of quality assurance, they can directly influence the practice of higher education."
Comparisons rather than rankings
While rankings continue to play a role in higher education policy, an initiative that enables comparisons shows promise as a tool for accrediting and quality assurance bodies.
U-Multirank, developed several years ago with funding from the European Commission, was intended to be an improvement over the much-despised global rankings, said U-Multirank architect Frank Ziegele, executive director of the Centre for Higher Education in Germany.
U-Multirank offers a comprehensive set of indicators such as student mobility, teaching and learning, research and knowledge transfer, allowing for more granular – and therefore more meaningful – comparisons.
Efforts to expand U-Multirank have met with some success: Ziegele is working on a pilot study with China, has had success in Japan, and sees emerging interest from Africa. While US institutions have been tepid in their response, U-Multirank uses federal data reported by the institutions and will include 240 US institutions in its database to be updated in March.
Student learning outcomes
Driven largely by the Bologna Process, the emphasis on student learning outcomes has gained political support in quality assurance in many countries.
However, preserving carefully guarded institutional autonomy has become a major concern as some governments look to quality assurance as a regulatory tool. Moreover, tools that measure outcomes are inadequate.
"We don’t want just to measure them," said Maria José Lemaitre, executive director of the Centro Interuniversitario de Desarrollo in Chile. "We want to improve them."
Risk-based assessment models
A potential game-changer in quality assurance and assessment is the concept of risk.
The United Kingdom and Australia have been leaders in approaching quality assurance and assessment through a risk-based model. Australia's risk indicators include factors such as student attrition and completion and institutional financial viability.
Last year, the UK government announced its intention to abolish the cyclical reporting process, in which every institution undergoes review, toward a more risk-based approach that eases the burden for institutions that consistently demonstrate good performance. It expects new regulatory frameworks to be in place by 2019.
Expert as dirty word
Perhaps the most troubling trend for higher education is the diminished appreciation for fundamental academic values, education consultant John Daniel told attendees. Expert is "a dirty word", he said.
Universities that view themselves as ‘elite’ need to come up with a new descriptor. And empirical evidence – the quest of academic knowledge-seekers across the globe – has been displaced by, to borrow a phrase used by Trump advisers, ‘alternative facts’.
"The vocabulary of higher education is tarnished," Daniel said. But "I don’t think we can back off the ideal that... it’s better to have knowledge than to not have knowledge."
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