Quality and accreditation body goes global

The US-based Council for Higher Education and Accreditation, CHEA, has launched an international division, arguing that as internationalisation spreads there is a pressing need for institutions around the world to work together to establish a shared global system of quality assurance.

For many years, the role of universities was relatively straightforward: educate the youth and produce original research. But in an increasingly globalised world, tertiary institutions serve a more complex purpose.

They function more as nodes in a much larger global network that involves not only other universities, but also a slew of businesses, non-profits and organisations that have a vested interest in an institution’s educational activity and financial outcomes.

With all these competing interests, programmes and objectives, has come growing recognition that a mechanism needs to be put in place to ensure universities aren’t working at cross purposes.

To address this challenge, the US-based CHEA – a non-profit advocacy group that represents accredited American colleges and universities – on 13 September launched an international division to promote and facilitate dialogue between colleges and various organisations around the globe to improve quality assurance in higher education.

Called the CHEA International Quality Group, or CIQG, the division aims to bring together universities, accreditors, businesses and government agencies from more than 40 countries to share information on their quality standards, identify trends in quality assurance, and promote international cooperation in improving academic quality in higher education.

“What can Europe learn from Asia, what can the US contribute and learn from others so we’re not these closed regional institutions?” asked Stamenka Uvalic-Trumbic, consultant for CIQG and former chief of the quality assurance section of UNESCO.

“It’s the spread of the familiar.”

The international dimension of quality assurance

Nowadays, the majority of undergraduates spend at least one semester abroad, faculty in different countries collaborate on research projects, and a student in Singapore can obtain a Yale degree without ever visiting the United States. Universities are no longer islands unto themselves, but rather members of a dynamic, evolving global campus.

The cross-pollination of students, faculty and ideas has brought issues of quality assurance to the fore, particularly how academic quality at universities is defined and measured, and how these standards compare between countries. As the internationalisation of higher education continues to spread, there comes a pressing need for institutions around the world to work together to establish a shared global system of quality assurance.

“There is a growing importance related to the international dimension of quality assurance,” Judith Eaton, CHEA’s president, told University World News. “The more understanding we have about quality assurance, the more we can work with one another, and that’s extremely valuable.”

Quality assurance is crucial on a number of levels. It holds a university accountable by assuring taxpayers (in the case of a public university) and the government alike that its teaching is of a high standard; it gives students a reliable platform to compare different courses and universities; and it gives a university national and, in many cases, international recognition of the standards of its degrees.

But quality assurance has been jeopardised by the commercial aspect of internationalisation.

Universities – many crippled by ongoing budget cuts – are in competition with one another to attract foreign students, who pay higher fees than residents. In the past 20 years, universities have opened branch campuses around the world in an effort to attract international interest.

But critics say this dogged focus on revenue is affecting the quality of education, and as a result the reputation of universities.

CQIG isn’t the first initiative aimed at establishing a shared standard of quality assurance across borders. Launched in 1999, the Bologna process set out to create a mutually recognisable accreditation system across Europe and the European Higher Education Area.

The reforms are ongoing and loosely structured, and challenges have cropped up particularly to do with different interpretations of the rules among the 47 participating European countries.

Some challenges

And this is the challenge facing CHEA’s new quality group.

When dealing with a host of different countries, reaching agreement on a base level of what qualifies as quality has its challenges. Countries differ – often widely – in the basic structures of their educational systems, their mode of evaluation, and the length of their courses and degrees, which makes comparison difficult.

Additionally, universities, as purveyors of independent thought and academic freedom, have a responsibility and a right to protect these fundamental values as they see fit.

Each university determines, to varying degrees, its standards for quality assurance based on its own unique philosophy and academic environment; the challenge is striking the balance between this self-regulation and accountability to the public.

To add another layer, the number of quality assurance agencies has grown around the world, many of them with competing approaches to quality.

Uvalic-Trumbic said all these conflicting principles and practices need to be compared and assessed.

“You have new forms of thinking about quality and interpreting what quality is,” Uvalic-Trumbic told University World News. “These need to be looked at from an international perspective to see what is most useful for countries.”

A convening role

CHEA will play a largely convening role, said Eaton. What the quality group won’t do is accredit colleges and universities – that’s up to the institutions and the accreditors and quality assurance agencies in their own countries.

“Although CHEA does review US organisations for quality and recognition, CHEA does not have the expertise or capacity to look beyond US accreditation,” said Eaton.

CHEA – which represents nearly 3,000 accredited American colleges and universities – plans to appoint an advisory council later this month to provide guidance on what issues the quality group should focus on.

The council, which will have its first meeting in December, will be made up of academics and representatives from quality assurance agencies worldwide.

The ultimate goal is for universities around the world to shift from competition to cooperation, united by a shared purpose of strengthening community and ensuring students are receiving the highest quality education, wherever they are.