Accreditation lies at the heart of development

Over the past three decades, governments in developing countries, particularly in Africa, have realised the significant value of higher education for national development. Accordingly, many governments in those countries have invested substantially in higher education expansion and have enacted liberalisation policies to allow private entrepreneurs to participate in the higher education sector.

At the same time, ‘accreditation’ has received an enormous amount of attention as a critical instrument for assisting Africa to realise fully the value of higher education. Accreditation may be viewed as the continuous process of ensuring that higher education institutions and their related academic programmes conform to specific laid-down quality standards in their operations and the delivery of their education programmes.

In addition, some African researchers and scholars regard accreditation as a catalyst for the revitalisation of higher education in Africa – to bring it to a par with internationally acceptable quality standards.

Others see accreditation as a hedge against unscrupulous entrepreneurs who would take advantage of and exploit vulnerable parents, guardians or students. In some quarters, accreditation could be construed as a safeguard against the import of bastardised higher education institutions to Africa. Finally, accreditation may be regarded as a form of higher education institutions’ accountability to the general public.

Following the example of other countries, the government of Ghana established the National Accreditation Board (NAB) in 1993 as an external quality agent under the Ministry of Education. It is charged with regulating, supervising and accrediting higher education institutions in Ghana. It also evaluates the equivalencies of foreign and local education credentials.

An education institution that is accredited in Ghana has fully complied with the NAB’s minimum quality standards, values and principles.

Such an institution has absolute autonomy to adopt any teaching practices, strategies and methodologies it considers appropriate; use whatever techniques and methods it deems suitable for the assessment of student learning; award certificates, diplomas or degrees to individual students; and recruit and admit students into their programmes of study.

It can also put in place any model of governance and administration that it considers suitable for its operation.

Assuring quality in higher education

In practice, the NAB assesses institutions and their programmes for accreditation based on its panel visit reports and responses to its questionnaires. In the questionnaire assessments, the NAB pays considerable attention to the conditions of physical infrastructure and financial resources that an educational institution potentially possesses to carry out its operations.

Institution location is not a consideration for accreditation, but this runs contrary to the NAB’s claim on its website that the need for a certain type of institution in a particular location is taken into consideration in the accreditation process.

Second, the visits of the NAB’s panel to an institution and the report it writes have greater weight relative to responses to its questionnaire. Nevertheless, the panel members can easily be influenced with money, gifts and other valuables.

To make matters worse, there is no independent review of the panel report (or decisions), nor do institutions that have been denied accreditation have the right to appeal against such decisions to a third-party arbitrator. This situation gives the NAB unfettered power that offends a cardinal principle of fairness.

Third, the NAB’s claims on its website that it assesses the teaching and research capacity of an institution before granting accreditation should be critically examined.

On the accreditation questionnaire, an institution is asked to attach the credentials of its academic staff. Once an institution’s academic staff satisfies the minimum credentials, which is a masters degree or professional qualification, the NAB does not do anything else. The NAB does not even verify how many of the academic staff are part-timers or full-timers.

The NAB does not realistically assess institutions’ research capacity either. In fact, institutions’ research capacity has never been a critical issue for the NAB. For assessment of institution research capability, the NAB simply relies exclusively on the institution having minimum library and information resources. But does access to or possession of library and information resources necessarily lead to research production?

While library and information resources assist research activities, they are not in and of themselves the catalyst required for research production. Rather, a well-established institutional research culture is the greatest catalyst for research production: the availability of time and funding for research by academic staff; collaboration among academic staff; a premium placed on research as a recognised academic activity for staff promotion; and research as a core part of academic life.

Indeed, research output in the form of research reports and published research articles in international journals might well be the evidence that the NAB needs for assessing an institution's research capacity.

Assessing teaching

What's more, how does the NAB assess teaching and learning effectiveness in institutions that it has accredited? Again, if an institution's academic staff satisfies the minimum qualification requirements the NAB assumes, without any supporting evidence, that teaching and learning must be effective in that institution.

Further, the NAB asserts on its website that it accredits both public and private higher education institutions, but the available evidence suggests that the NAB micro-targets higher private-funded education institutions and the public ones established after the NAB came into being. Ghanaian premier or flagship universities like the University of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology and the University of Cape Coast are yet to experience the impact of NAB’s operations or influence.

Furthermore, it should be noted that accreditation is veritably a policy instrument. Accordingly, it should be linked to a framework of national development policies and aligned with other policies as well. That way, the government, through the NAB, would be able to deny accreditation to education institutions whose missions are out of sync with its development policies. We have not seen this happening in Ghana and this has made accreditation strategically irrelevant as one of the tools for national development planning.

Lastly, there is no evidence to suggest that the NAB’s accreditation has any links to the development of outcomes and skills required by the Ghanaian labour market. This is very disappointing indeed. It is also contrary to NAB’s claim in a World Bank document that it takes into consideration an institution’s link to the labour market before granting accreditation.

The lack of a link between the accreditation process and skills requirements and conditions in the labour market has resulted, as we have observed in Ghana, in the production of graduates with irrelevant skills, knowledge and disposition, adding to the existing army of unemployed university graduates.

The university graduate unemployment rate in Ghana now stands at between 24% and 25% and continues to rise exponentially as both private and public universities pump out more graduates every year.

Advisory role?

On its website, in newspapers and in other media public notifications, the NAB often warns students and the general public to desist from dealing with any unaccredited institutions or those whose accreditation has been revoked or suspended.

In other public notifications, the NAB states that when stakeholders are in doubt about the accreditation status of any institutions they should access that information from its website. It assumes erroneously that every potential stakeholder has access to the internet. What about students and parents or guardians from remote rural communities without internet connectivity?

On its website, the NAB quotes the following regulations as part of its legal authority to impose penalties on unaccredited institutions that continue to operate in Ghana: Regulation 19(2) of L I 1700 (2002) states that “no person or institution shall (a) advertise or continue to advertise or in any manner hold itself out to the public as a tertiary institution; (b) admit or continue to admit students or conduct courses or programmes of instruction leading to an award of certificates, diplomas or degrees; (c) continue to operate as a tertiary institution where the institution’s authorisation, accreditation or registration has been suspended or revoked; or (d) otherwise embark upon or continue with any activity preparatory to the establishment of facilities for tertiary education; after the commencement of these Regulations unless the person or institution complies with these Regulations”.

In fact, Regulation 19(3) of L I 1700 adds that: “Any person or institution that contravenes any provision of Sub-regulation (2) commits an offence and is liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding 250 penalty units.”

Yet the NAB has never recommended that law enforcement agencies lay charges against or close down any unaccredited institutions. In practice, institutions that have violated the NAB regulations are left alone.

It seems those regulations have no real enforcement teeth. The fact is that labelling education institutions as unaccredited does not do much to protect the public interest. Our investigations indicate that those unaccredited institutions continue to operate like accredited ones.

This being the case, our perspective is that institutions that violate the NAB’s regulations on accreditation and refuse to work with it after a reasonable period of time should be closed down immediately and permanently. That way, the public interest would be better protected than warning students and the general public to steer away from those institutions.

Ineffective communication

A public institution such as the NAB should operate with maximum transparency, especially with regard to its communication to the public whose interests it claims to protect. A specific example is in July 2015, when the NAB listed in the Ghanaian media the names of 53 higher education institutions that were unaccredited.

In that public notification, the NAB listed the location of each institution, but did not list the specific grounds on which each was unaccredited. The Ghanaian public deserves the right to know the bases of unaccreditation of those institutions instead of being directed to read the following statement from the NAB: “Employers and potential students are advised to consult NAB before enrolling in any tertiary institutions in Ghana.”

Moreover, in those public notifications no phone numbers, addresses or other contact information is disclosed for the public to contact the NAB. The board assumes, without any scintilla of evidence, that it is well known and that its contact information is readily available to everyone.

Capacity building

The NAB needs massive capacity building to function effectively as a state-sponsored external quality assurance agency. This would allow the NAB to learn from current innovative quality assurance practices, policies, challenges and theories from other jurisdictions about how it could implement them in the Ghanaian or African context.

It is crucial that higher education institutions in Ghana, both public and private, are encouraged to establish an internal culture of sustainable quality assurance in the domains of teaching and learning, student assessment, staff professional development and evaluation and links to the labour market.

Such an organisational orientation has a greater likelihood of instilling and promoting a culture of continuous quality improvement in higher education than mere compliance with the NAB directives. This is the carrot approach, but the NAB should use a combination of carrot and stick approaches in the accreditation process.

Dr Eric Fredua-Kwarteng is a policy analyst in Canada. Samuel Kwaku Ofosu is academic affairs officer at Ghana College of Physicians and Surgeons.