New mechanisms are needed to improve transparency

The explosion of demand worldwide for higher education and for evidence of its value to graduates, employers and the wider global community must be met head on by tertiary-level institutions, a top education official at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD, told quality assurance professionals Thursday.

And the best way to do that is by being more open and honest about what students are learning, he said.

“We will not be able to address mounting pressures on higher education if we’re not radically improving transparency," said Dirk Van Damme, the OECD's head of the Division of Innovation and Measuring Progress. "It’s about empowering the demand side.”

Speaking at an annual meeting in Washington last week of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, or CHEA, and its international division, the CHEA International Quality Group, or CIQG, Van Damme identified a range of trends, including greater student mobility, skyrocketing costs, increasingly sophisticated teaching technology and the needs of a fast-changing workforce, all of which are intensifying pressure on colleges and universities to demonstrate that a degree from their institution is worth the investment.

The most promising response, he said, would be an international comparative assessment of learning outcomes of graduates, with findings made available to all stakeholders, including policy-makers and employers and, especially, students and families.

An attempt by OECD to do just that has failed to win favour from universities in some of the most powerful parts of the world. It had been working with 17 countries to test an assessment instrument, known as the Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes, or AHELO, that is similar to its 20-year-old Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, for lower education levels.

In a joint letter to the OECD last May, the US-based American Council on Education and Universities Canada said they have "grave reservations" about using what they called a "one-size-fits-all" approach.

“For the time being we don’t have the political support to develop [AHELO]," Van Damme said on Thursday. But he also made it clear that the motivations behind the initiative remain a top priority.

In October, a senior OECD official said its education policy division was developing a new project to benchmark the performance of higher education systems.

Van Damme also noted a range of potentially promising national and regional initiatives being developed, including research projects in Germany, the UK and Italy. And commercial rankings, much-reviled among professionals within higher education, help to fill the void for many stakeholders.

"I don’t think we can just be satisfied with our criticism of rankings and not provide the information that students need," he said. "Higher education systems do not provide society the amount of transparency that they expect. They continue to believe that the old mechanisms that have worked in the past – trust in quality, trust in institutions – will work. Well, they won't."

Van Damme's appearance was part of three days of meetings devoted to quality assurance and accreditation in higher education. About 350 people representing more than 30 countries across six continents were registered for the event, and most of them arrived despite the massive snowstorm that crippled most of Washington, DC for much of the week.

International issues topped the agenda for the second half of the conference, and the first half focused on concerns specific to US higher education. Topics focused on a range of challenges, including an influx of new providers, the spread of corruption across developing and developed countries and growing dissatisfaction with longstanding practices in higher education.

In the UK, for example, international accounting firm Ernst & Young said recruiters would no longer consider degree classification, in part because an 18-month study found "no evidence" that success in higher education correlated with the success of its recent hires.

"More than ever, we have some topics that are challenging for accreditation and may even take us out of our comfort zone, our... traditional mode of operation," CHEA President Judith Eaton said in opening remarks, noting that US higher education has captured the attention of contenders for the US presidential election in November. "The same thing we're experiencing in the US is going on in a number of other countries."

Eaton also introduced recent initiatives by CHEA and CIQG designed to address some of the emerging challenges and develop cross-border consensus on the objectives of quality assurance and accreditation in higher education.

Non-traditional providers

Responding to growing demand for professional education and industrial training that does not lead to an academic degree, CHEA and CIQG unveiled results of a pilot programme to develop an international, outcomes-based review of non-traditional providers.

The pilot included a comprehensive study of documents and a site visit to DeTao Masters Academy Advanced Classes, a private company in China. Established in 2012, the company offers short-term courses in subjects such as ecological architecture design, brand strategy and management and Spanish classical guitar.

At the conference, DeTao was certified as a Quality Platform Provider, a new designation that it met by meeting four standards: learning outcomes are articulated and achieved, post-secondary expectations are met, transparency is maintained, and comparability is established.

Also announced at the CIQG meeting was a new mechanism through which international organisations can signal their support of a set of principles that aim to define common goals for quality assurance in higher education, while also acknowledging critical differences based on country, culture or region.

The principles, developed by a CHEA/CIQG advisory council and published last spring, set the stage for discussions of "new tools and different tools" for ensuring quality of higher education across borders at the regional and international level, said Stamenka Uvalic-Trumbic, CHEA's senior adviser on international affairs and former chief of the higher education section at UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

"Things are moving very, very fast [in higher education], so quality assurance and accreditation should move just as fast," she said.