Site visits must be part of the accreditation process

Higher education is about learning, teaching, scholarship and research, and higher education providers should be continuously assuring and enhancing the quality of these areas.

Higher education accreditation is a type of quality assurance process usually undertaken by an external agency to determine if appropriate standards in the delivery of teaching, learning, scholarship and research have been met.

Some accreditation agencies make site visits, some do not and some do if they consider the documentation received from the higher education provider to be inadequate in some way.

As someone who has been involved with accreditation agencies that have as their customary practice the conduct of site visits as well as those that do so only when they have questions and only to seek clarification about a certain matter, I really believe the former serves everyone best. What I am proposing is that site visits should happen as part of the accreditation process.

Demonstrating compliance

Most universities have a division or unit with a whole team of people devoted to keeping abreast of accreditation requirements. They are expert in the preparation of documentation required for accreditation or reaccreditation. Smaller private higher education providers tend to employ consultants who are expert in accreditation to support them in the accreditation or reaccreditation process.

In both circumstances, the written documentation typically reflects knowledge on the part of the provider about how ‘best’ to present their case to the relevant accrediting authority. The chief motive is demonstrating to the external accrediting authority that the provider is compliant with the expected criteria.

At the same time the provider normally acknowledges there are some areas that require further development and relays how the organisation is already working through a number of initiatives and developments to address and so bring about further improvement in academic standards and overall quality of provision.

The provider wants to paint a picture of solid and comprehensive evidence and commitment to academic quality and at the same time, dedication to continuous quality improvement. It’s not cheating. It is perhaps at worst exaggerating the excellence of how well the organisation does deliver on learning, teaching, scholarship and research.

So what are some of the benefits of a site visit?

An on-site visit allows an accreditation review team to verify the written data provided to them by the higher education provider. Just as importantly for the provider it also allows an opportunity for the review team to evaluate those features that can’t really be effectively illustrated in written form.

The site visit usually involves discussions with key personnel within the organisation, including academic and administrative staff, management, students, recent graduates and employers. These meetings can reveal so much more than the documentation alone can. They can help affirm claims made in the documentation, assist to clarify inconsistent information or provide missing information.

Throughout the course of various discussions with organisational personnel, not only do things become clearer for the review team, the organisation – through questions posed by the review team – learns much about its practices, both strengths and areas for improvement. There is a chance to seek clarification from the review team about issues and to start to reflect on how to correct or transform ways of doing things that can’t be fully replicated when working cold from a review report.

It is human nature (at least initially) to react unenthusiastically and defensively to a report that includes comments about what you’re not doing well. The site visit can act as an educative process for all involved.

An on-site visit means the organisation also has the opportunity to make available materials such as examples of policies, procedures, guidelines, prospectuses, full subject details, a variety of samples of student work and learning resources.

Sure… these can all be referenced in the documentation, with web links provided, but there is less likelihood of them being thoroughly examined than when they are actually placed in front of a review team. The on-site visit can also include an opportunity to tour the physical facilities and see first-hand classrooms, the library, laboratories and so forth.

Learning and improving

A final stage of the site visit is often a concluding meeting with the higher education provider’s CEO and his or her senior team. The review team briefly and objectively provides their overall impressions and verbally outlines preliminary findings. It forecasts to the provider areas that may require further development.

It should also help lessen any ambiguity when the provider receives the full written report from the review team that will include both recommendations for changes to further improve and commendations about areas of good performance.

During this final stage some review teams also offer suggestions to the provider about alternate effective practices they may wish to consider, based on their knowledge of what is good practice in other organisations.

Higher education is about learning, teaching, scholarship and research. It is in everyone’s interests that higher education providers engage with these areas to the highest possible standards. I believe that accreditation exercises I have been part of that have included site visits more accurately (and honestly) confirm compliance with expected accreditation principles than those that rely solely on written documentation.

Including a site visit as part of the accreditation process supports continuous academic quality improvement.

Dr Nita Temmerman is former pro vice-chancellor (academic) and executive dean (education) at the University of Southern Queensland, Australia; visiting professor at the Solomon Islands National University; chair of the academic board of the Leaders Institute Australia; a specialist with the Hong Kong Council for Accreditation of Academic and Vocational Qualifications; and an invited external reviewer with Oman Academic Accreditation Authority.