Quality assurance must go beyond bureaucratic compliance

Globalisation, massification and the digital revolution have brought radical changes to the higher education environment and opened up opportunities for new providers, delivery modalities and diverse student cohorts.

Given the above, quality assurance grew and expanded in much of the world and in Latin America, starting in the mid-1990s with a variety of systems focused on different aspects of the functions of higher education.

However, in general, only a few studies have addressed the impact of quality assurance systems in higher education in Latin America. These studies mainly outline the legal frameworks that govern it and how they have gradually impacted the work of the different higher education institutions.

There is a consensus among academics and policy-makers about the potential of quality assurance systems to contribute to the modernisation of higher education. However, critics argue that the heterogeneous application of these systems with different degrees of depth and efficiency in the Latin American region is due to various types of government interference and interest groups with political or economic agendas that are linked to their ideologies or interests.

The common denominator among the region’s countries is the almost total absence of a strategic vision for the higher education sector.

Currently, higher education faces unprecedented challenges, including increasing challenges to retain students, a rapid change in the student profile and the massive impact of the pandemic. These have led to significant learning losses, the emergence of alternative ways of learning, communicating and working, and an evident depreciation in the value of professional degrees.

On the other hand, unemployment is rising throughout the region and new work models are emerging with new demands, a need for lifelong learning and professional qualification requirements.

In this scenario, quality assurance in the last 25 years has contributed relatively little to solving the structural problems of the sector and the challenges facing the evolution of higher education in the region as evidenced by its minimal competitive participation at the global level.

The Latin American context

Latin America and the Caribbean today represent 8.2% of the world’s population, with a total of 662 million people. According to projections, the area will reach its maximum population in 2056, with 752 million people. The region is characterised by a rapid demographic transition from high levels of mortality and fertility in the 1950s to low levels of both today.

By 2100, projections indicate that the percentage of the population aged 60 and over in the region will be higher than in Asia, North America, Oceania and Africa. In April this year, the International Monetary Fund indicated that the region would account for 5.26% of the world’s GDP.

Moreover, only 10 universities in the region are among the top 500 institutions worldwide in the Shanghai university ranking and only 2.25% are in the Times Higher Education World University Ranking’s top 400.

The population between 18 and 24 years of age enrolled in the region’s higher education institutions is approximately 4.6%. This figure represents an enormous challenge. Therefore, higher education institutions must ensure the quality of the teaching and learning process in their undergraduate and graduate programmes. Likewise, they must promote research, development, innovation and community engagement.

To effectively respond to this enormous challenge, institutions should use strategic management models led by highly specialised professionals who apply business intelligence and advanced analytics systems for proactive decision-making and practical approaches for comprehensive quality assurance.

Unfortunately, however, many higher education institutions in the region continue to apply governance models that respond to other times and realities. In addition, they tend to suffer from fragile institutional management, extensive levels of mercantilism, ideological fervour and an openness to populist currents.

In this scenario, the lack of professionalisation when it comes to institutional management, weak leadership and the absence of existing higher education ecosystems, challenges which primary and secondary education levels also face, undoubtedly hinder the development and implementation of comprehensive education policies in the region’s countries.

These guidelines should be driven by strategic thinking on the part of policy-makers which promotes a vision of the future that genuinely ensures educational quality in times of high interconnection and accelerated change to avoid continuing to maintain the status quo which has been dragging on for decades.

The quality assurance process

Institutions dedicated to higher education quality assurance in Latin America are very heterogeneous. Until recently, they concentrated on the accreditation of undergraduate, graduate and on-site institutional careers. Since the pandemic, they have exercised their evaluation function by using technological tools to measure the quality of programmes and institutions.

The installation and operation of accreditation agencies, commissions and councils since the 1990s has allowed the gradual creation of a culture of accountability, although we now face an impasse between merely conforming to the norms and making improvements. In the meantime, several obstacles have arisen that directly or indirectly affect the work of these entities.

In some cases, such as the Colombian National Accreditation System, it is evident that the participation of the government and the higher education institutions themselves has led to excessive bureaucratisation which has slowed down the necessary procedures and self-evaluation and external evaluation processes.

This has allowed doubts to arise in the educational community about the actual value of the accreditation process, thus undervaluing the achievement reached by some higher education institutions in the eyes of society and the international community.

Likewise, the excessive detail contained in the accreditation guidelines limits innovation since it is outside the ‘manual’ and the expertise of peer reviewers is not taken advantage of since they have to follow the guidelines set by the council.

A similar situation has occurred in other countries where various factors affect the results of accreditation processes. In the case of Chile, beyond the procedures established in the 2018 higher education law, the National Accreditation Commission (CNA) operates in a complex environment when it comes to proactive decision-making.

For example, the commercialisation of some private higher education institutions and the almost dogmatic belief held by some that state higher education institutions are of quality per se influence decision-making in these matters. There is also a need for greater transparency in the dissemination of accreditation results since the minutes of agreements are made public with a significant time lag of up to six months.

On the other hand, as a consequence of the pandemic and despite the lack of progress on mechanisms for and availability of peer reviewers specialised in pedagogical and technological issues in non-classroom education, a series of state and private higher education institutions have received institutional accreditation certified as ‘advanced’ and showing ‘excellence’ without reference to the many doubts regarding institutional effectiveness in aspects such as internal strategic leadership capabilities, innovative didactic strategies, availability of consolidated information analysis systems, the real impact of their research in the community and contribution to the social development of their place of learning.

In addition, it is striking that self-evaluation reports are often enormous, descriptive and self-referential documents lacking in analysis, and yet they are accepted by the CNA as the starting point of the accreditation process.

Yet, despite all of this, virtual or on-site evaluation committees continue to carry out external evaluations leading to the categories mentioned above. Do we need to reform this process so that it goes beyond paper criteria and standards and focuses on impact with regard to quality?

State interference

In other countries in the region, mainly in Central America, the national quality assurance bodies, when they exist or are in operation, suffer from state interference in decision-making regarding quality, and the accreditation standards that institutions have to ‘comply with’ are comprehensive and complex, which seem to favour formal compliance over improvement.

This situation inhibits higher education institutional innovation. On the other hand, there needs to be more training for peer reviewers so that they don’t merely evaluate the institution in line with what their own is doing. This distorts the meaning of the external evaluation process.

Another consideration regarding higher education quality assurance in the region concerns the analysis of the curricula of degree programmes. There are practically no models of degree programmes in similar disciplines that differ radically, either in their objectives, teaching methodologies or evaluation mechanisms, from those traditionally offered.

What happens in practice is that, due to competition among institutions, they often opt for standardised curricula so that differentiation among them is almost nil. There needs to be coherence between the institution’s mission declaration and purpose statement and the programmes offered.

Excessive government regulation through accreditation processes oriented more towards compliance with inputs and procedures reinforces this standardisation of content, which forces many higher education institutions to deliver very similar degree programmes.

The region’s higher education quality assurance agencies, commissions and councils also need to address lifelong learning, particularly on a continent that anticipates having one of the largest populations of over-60-year-olds in the next decade.

In addition, there needs to be an interest in or the capacity to address the substantial change in the provision of skills and knowledge that is happening as a result of the micro-credentialing that is offered by multiple companies via the internet.

Innovation over compliance

There is still a long way to go for the entities in charge of quality assurance in higher education institutions to induce innovation and ensure effective organisational diversity rather than mere bureaucratic compliance.

Finally, it would be interesting to contrast the information on Latin American higher education institutions accredited as of the highest quality by their national systems with their position in the most prestigious international rankings. Likely, detractors will argue that these rankings are biased due to the value given to research, development and innovation in such rankings.

Nevertheless, the rapid advance of data analytics means these rankings will adapt their variables and may offer significant competition to quality assurance agencies, commissions and councils. Moreover, since their results are much simpler to understand, they may have more impact on the general population.

Higher education quality assurance agencies, councils and commissions therefore need to reanalyse their current role and what higher education systems expect from them. We live in diverse, multicultural societies with structural problems, growing populism and a significant decrease in social cohesion.

Therefore, it is essential to strengthen the concept of citizenship, guarantee the actual quality of higher education at all levels and train thinking, self-critical professionals who are capable of seeking solutions to the serious problems of all kinds that afflict the region.

Carlos Olivares is a higher education consultant based in Chile. E-mail: