Right moment to strengthen quality assurance mechanisms
The former consists of state universities created by law, non-state universities belonging to the Council of Rectors and private universities recognised by the state. The second type comprises both technical training centres and professional institutes.
There are currently 145 higher education institutions in Chile: 57 universities, 36 professional institutes (Instituto Profesional) and 52 technical training centres (Centro de Formación Técnica). Over the past 15 years, total enrolment increased by 55.7% to 1,294,739 students in 2021.
The new legislation introduced important changes to the system’s organisational architecture, creating the Undersecretariat of Higher Education (Subsecretaría de Educación Superior) and the Superintendency of Higher Education (Superintendencia de Educación Superior).
These join existing bodies that include the National Accreditation Commission (Comisión Nacional de Acreditación, CNA) and the National Education Council (Consejo Nacional de Educación). The members of the CNA Council were also replaced, but at the time of writing, the quality standards and criteria to be applied as part of the new system of mandatory comprehensive accreditation had not been published.
The law put in place the National System of Higher Education Quality Assurance (Sistema Nacional de Aseguramiento de la Calidad de la Educación Superior, SINACES), consisting of the above-mentioned bodies, the higher education institutions and a Coordinating Committee (Comité de Coordinación). The latter will deal with the formulation of policies for the promotion of quality, institutional accreditation, licensing, inspection of higher education institutions and public information.
From voluntary to mandatory accreditation
The existing regulations permitted the voluntary accreditation of institutions and their undergraduate and graduate degree programmes, which could be awarded by the CNA itself or by private accreditation agencies overseen by it.
The new legislation requires mandatory accreditation of PhD courses and of degrees in medicine, dentistry and pedagogy. Accreditation of masters programmes and other undergraduate degrees will not be required until December 2024.
Likewise, institutional accreditation will consist of the assessment and verification of quality standards and the fulfilment of specific criteria and will cover resources, processes and outcomes.
It will also involve analysis of the existence and systematic application of internal quality assurance mechanisms, along with the alignment of these with the higher education institution’s mission and purpose.
There are three accreditation categories, each with different durations: Basic (three years), Advanced (four or five years) and Excellence (six or seven years).
Overview of higher education prior to the new legislation
Although progress has been made in terms of the quality of higher education in recent years, it is not entirely clear whether such advances were truly aimed at continuous improvement or, in fact, amounted to little more than a ritual box-ticking exercise conducted every few years.
The hard, measurable and demonstrable evidence of progress in terms of results, impact and the acquisition by young professionals not only of knowledge but also of essential skills does not always correlate clearly with the period of accreditation granted to those institutions that voluntarily undertook the process.
Critics have claimed that judgments made by certain peer reviewers and the CNA Council itself were inconsistent, suggesting that the final results were closely associated with institutional prestige and that favour was given to state institutions to the detriment of their private competitors.
It is well known that some organisations viewed institutional accreditation as an end in itself, with the result that management bodies would direct all of their attention towards compliance with these processes while the quality of their performance failed to reflect the supposed benefits of accreditation.
The authority of the CNA was thrown into question in the early 2010s with the revelation of corruption within certain aspects of the accreditation process, directly involving members of the CNA and a number of universities. The new team that took over the Council in the wake of this problematic period rapidly implemented a set of integrity and probity measures to prevent any future recurrence.
Progress achieved to date
Today, the accreditation process follows the existing quality criteria as outlined above but is managed by virtual means as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Thus, the CNA has carried out exceptional adjustments, including external evaluation procedures to adapt them to the virtual modality. Yet there is some concern about the effectiveness of the virtual process from some higher education institutions.
A review of selected self-evaluation reports produced by state and private institutions is disappointing. The majority take the form of large books of self-compiled information that describes action that will allegedly be taken in the future and are devoid of any meaningful analysis of the effects of such implementations during the period for which accreditation is being requested.
In summary, these accounts appear to be little more than formality, especially in the case of higher education institutions with low levels of quality, intended simply to secure four-year accreditation and minimal compliance with the law.
In this way, poorly performing institutions are able to avoid consequences, such as changes to the management team and the withdrawal of the state subsidies available to students from vulnerable socio-economic strata.
Although institutional accreditation has theoretically moved its focus to outcomes, its mechanisms continue to prioritise inputs and the specifics of processes. The new international accreditation models adopted emphasise outcomes both in terms of teaching/learning and employment. However, the approach to these issues is weak on the part of both higher education institutions and Chile’s regulatory body.
A threat to the education ecosystem
Failures in accreditation that result in official endorsement of poorly performing institutions cause considerable damage to students who, in good faith, expect to receive a good-quality educational service.
The successive awarding of accreditation to such organisations constitutes a threat to the entire education ecosystem and responsibility for this situation lies squarely with the regulatory body tasked with preventing it.
The hard, measurable and demonstrable evidence of progress in terms of outcomes, impact and the acquisition by young professionals not only of knowledge but also of essential skills and values is not easily correlated with the period of accreditation granted to each institution.
Higher education institutions are highly heterogeneous in terms of longevity, tradition, resources, finance, human capital, quality management teams, institutional mission and quality culture.
We can only hope that the new proposals to be published by the CNA will improve the quality mechanisms and internal and external workings of higher education institutions across the board to the benefit of young people and the country as a whole.
Carlos Olivares is a higher education consultant based in Chile. E-mail: email@example.com