‘Quality platform’ proposed for post-traditional HE

A global ‘quality platform’ to externally review higher education that occurs outside institutions – the new forms of provision expanding rapidly around the world that also includes MOOCs, or massive open online courses – has been proposed by the International Quality Group of America’s Council for Higher Education Accreditation, or CHEA.

The platform would review quality on a voluntary basis from the starting point of student achievement, providing (or not) a stamp of approval for non-traditional providers and a service to learners seeking quality higher education in non-institutional settings.

The proposal was announced in a policy brief titled Higher Education Outside Colleges and Universities: How do we assure quality, published ahead of CHEA’s annual conference held in Washington DC from 27-29 January.

The brief argues that a combination of economic slow-down and internet-based technologies has encouraged both traditional and new higher education providers to offer new courses in response to contemporary needs.

In particular, the global youth unemployment crisis has spawned new types of qualifications such as ‘open badges’, informal short courses such as massive open online courses – MOOCs – “and a stronger focus on competencies”.

“An agreed generic term for these developments has yet to emerge. They are variously described as ‘non-institutional’ (although many traditional universities are offering MOOCs), ‘post-traditional’ (although new approaches are increasingly linked to conventional awards) or ‘informal’ (although formal recognition of learning is often given),” the brief states.

“This is a worldwide trend. For example, the Europe 2020 Strategy calls for a transition towards outcome-based qualifications systems and more validation of skills and competencies acquired in non-formal and informal contexts in the interests of employability.

“It is important to create quality assurance frameworks to give credibility to these developments in order that learners do not feel lost in a ‘free-for-all’ of new higher education provision.”

How the platform would work

CHEA President Judith Eaton told University World News: “We are talking about a review of providers of what we’re calling non-institutional or extra-institutional education, outside of traditional colleges and universities.

“Right now, in the United States and a lot of other countries, quality assurance is all focused on the traditional college or university. If we have a lot more students trying to get some post-secondary higher education in a non-institutional way, this would give them protection.”

Providers would also be able to show that they offered quality education. “If it came from a place people know to be a reliable source of information on quality, it would help them,” Eaton said.

CHEA is developing standards and a process whereby it would be possible to approach a non-institutional provider and evaluate the quality of its work. “CHEA is interested in developing the idea and the capacity and we may pilot it,” she said.

The council does not offer accreditation – it reviews accreditors – and, she stressed: “We’re not going into the accreditation business. If we develop something, we will test it and if we know it has some strength and usefulness, we would put it out there.”

Reviews could be done by firms, accreditors or quality assurance bodies and could “easily be international”, Eaton said. While that might impact on what standards are looked at, the concept would remain the same and reviews would be outcomes-focused and transparent, possibly drawing on a small review group of academics from traditional and non-traditional providers, and the public.

Solutions offered

The policy brief argues that non-institutional education may be part of a solution to global demand for greater access to higher education “as well as an effective response to the vital need to sustain and enhance equity in higher education. It brings education within the financial reach of potentially millions of students”.

It may also be part of a solution to the problem of college completion. “It can enrich education for work and workforce development, meeting the needs of employers through the emphasis on short-term, flexible offerings and development of specific competencies.”

However, there are concerns about non-institutional higher education being episodic and detached from a full on-campus education experience, its absence of attention to general education, the extent to which it is student-driven and its potential to polarise higher education “with only affluent students able to obtain a world-class education”.

In terms of quality, the brief points out, reviews of non-institutional providers are carried out internally.

“We’re saying wait a minute, if this is going to involve millions of students – and there is some evidence that it will – something is going to have to be done,” Eaton told University World News. “This is a whole new way of delivering higher education. Let’s have a quality model right there at the beginning, as well as the new academic model.”

CHEA’s International Quality Group, or CIQG, believes outcomes-based quality assessment should be the point of departure. “Student achievement is the central characteristic with which we would judge quality. It’s not unique, but in this case it is quite purposeful.”

Eaton said the CIQG had talked to three groups, one in the US, one outside and one that does global work.

“There is a way to go with this. It would be up to CHEA to develop and test it. Where we’d go from there I don’t know. We would have to see what we learned from testing it out. Right now, our thinking is that we don’t want to go into that business.

“But we do think this is an important area. That’s where our heads are right now. There are a lot of ways in which it could be handled. But if it’s viable, if it’s robust and we work with another organisation to do it, that might work out real well.”