A challenge to QA to adapt to innovation in HE provision

As a baseline for better understanding the state of quality assurance in a rapidly changing global context, the United States-based Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and its International Quality Group (CIQG) will in the coming weeks release reports aimed at making sense of how, if at all, quality assurance agencies are navigating the mounting tension between traditional notions of continuous improvement and growing calls to hold institutions accountable.

The studies were commissioned to help quality assurance bodies develop innovative accountability measures without giving up the more traditional focus on peer review and mission-oriented evaluation.

“We’re trying to keep the [traditional] strengths of accreditation but also acknowledge what the world is demanding of us,” said Judith Eaton, president of CHEA, which recently held its annual meeting in Washington. About 320 quality assurance professionals representing 28 countries registered to attend the four-day gathering, which opened with a focus on US higher education and ended with a closer look at international developments.

One set of studies focuses on US accreditation agencies, while another study looks at global practices. A third report examines how quality assurance bodies might facilitate cross-border understandings of quality assurance.

US accreditation and student learning

Nearly all US accreditors, whether for institutions or programmes, agreed that they have in recent years faced significant changes to standards, policies and guidance, and evaluation practices related to student achievement, findings from a study by NORC at the University of Chicago, an independent research organisation, show. Top drivers include changes in student demographics and economic demands for higher education.

The survey is based on responses from 64 accreditors that collectively authorise more than 6,000 institutions and 22,000 specialised programmes. Findings pointed to a need to better understand whether processes used by accreditors yield valuable information about student success, said NORC researchers Erin Knepler and Tafaya Ransom.

Among details: 75% of institutional accreditors and 44% of programmatic accreditors said they had revised standards to accommodate recent innovations in higher education, while half of institutional accreditors and 67% of programmatic accreditors said they had revised standards to require more evidence that outcomes are being achieved. A quarter of institutional accreditors, and 16% of programmatic accreditors decreased the number of standards for which institutions or programmes are accountable.

Most accreditors surveyed said they are moderately innovative, but also cited state and federal regulations, along with funding constraints, as some of the top barriers to innovation.

Accrediting organisations “believe their efforts related to student outcomes and accreditation are paying off in many respects and that their members are getting better at evidencing student achievement”, Ransom said. Responses also suggest accreditors increasingly grapple with concerns over what they see as a trend toward overly standardised and narrow approaches to quality review, she said.

Despite growing calls for greater transparency, more than half (54%) of institutional accreditors said they make no materials publicly available, while 38% said they make some materials available. More than half (55%) of programmatic accreditors said they make no materials available publicly and 28% said they make some materials public.

And while new forms of education such as massive open online courses (MOOCs) and coding bootcamps have become increasingly common, most of both institutional (62%) and programmatic (83%) accreditors said they neither review nor accredit non-traditional providers, nor do they intend to. A majority of both institutional (75%) and programmatic (79%) accreditors said they do not plan on expanding the scope of their activities

While the data show that a majority of institutional and programmatic accreditors tend not to engage with non-traditional providers of higher education, those that currently do “may be better suited to quickly respond to potential legislation in this area”, including one proposal that would expand access to financial aid to short-term training programmes, Knepler said.

A global review of quality assurance

Accreditation bodies are gradually increasing the transparency of their evaluations and in many parts of the world have moved beyond reporting on the decision only to include publication of full reports, summary reports or action letters, an examination of policies of 28 accreditation agencies or quality assurance bodies finds.

Findings shed light on how countries and regions are responding to growing public debate about the role of quality assurance organisations to ensure that higher education institutions are meeting the needs and expectations of society.

The study is designed to advance “a conversation that the quality assurance community has had for a while – [how to strike] the balance between what information to report publicly and what outcomes should be reported to institutions only”, said researcher Dorte Kristoffersen, an Australia-based higher education consultant with extensive experience in quality assurance.

Kristoffersen examined policy and practice in Africa, Australasia, Central and Latin America, Europe, the Middle East and North America.

Among preliminary findings: Completion and employment data were the most common performance measures, reported by 17 of 28 organisations. Retention and progression measures were reported by half of the organisations, while smaller numbers of organisations looked at graduation and credit transfer. None measured student debt or whether students moved on to advanced studies, five measured loan defaults and two measured information related to earnings.

The study also included a detailed look at how some agencies present their information publicly. A key challenge facing accreditation bodies is that published information can easily be misunderstood or misused, Kristoffersen said.

Quality assurance evaluation reports “are very unique”, she said. “You need to know how to read them and they’re not always very easy for a student or parent or the media to understand.”

Cross-border partnership opportunities

Because of their increasing focus on international collaboration, quality assurance agencies could provide the common ground that would help small colleges internationalise their campuses, and one report at the CHEA meeting explored how partnerships could be encouraged between the United States and Muslim-majority countries.

Colleges that want to internationalise, whether in the United States or the Middle East or Southeast Asia, face “shared challenges but no shared language”, said Nadia Badrawi, vice president of the Arab Network for Quality Assurance in Higher Education. Badrawi’s organisation, CIQG and the US Council of Independent Colleges are looking into how quality assurance agencies might facilitate such partnerships.

Rich Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges, described accreditation bodies as a kind of “matchmaker”, linking colleges in Muslim countries interested in the American approach to a private liberal arts education with US institutions that want to encourage their students to study abroad in non-traditional parts of the world.

US colleges often have trouble identifying good institutional partners in other countries, while their counterparts overseas may not be aware of the diverse number of small US colleges that are heavily committed to student and faculty exchanges, Ekman said. “The national and regional quality assurance agencies are already familiar with US accreditation so are potentially easier for US colleges to work with.”