Accreditation: Tap potential of professional associations
The authority’s current accreditation reforms suggest that the authority, itself, exclusively has to carry out all responsibilities.
It plans to carry out accreditation at various levels of the education system, including for short-term training; education offered from kindergarten to high school; and from technical and vocational training to university level. The accreditation will either be through the authority’s direct involvement, or through a supervisory role it envisages to exercise.
Far beyond overstretching the already limited capacity of the authority and affecting its efficiency, such responsibilities will not be easy to execute unless concerted efforts are made to tap other important resources.
In this regard, the utter neglect of professional associations appears to be a significant gap in the accreditation process, given the many useful global examples where such associations have been used for accreditation.
Institutional vs programmatic accreditation
The two major forms of accreditation widely used in higher education are often identified as ‘institutional’ and ‘programmatic’ or ‘specialised’ accreditation.
Although both are important for ensuring the quality of education at tertiary level, they serve different purposes.
With its particular focus on areas such as the mission, vision, academic and organisational structures and resources, institutional accreditation aims at a holistic evaluation of an entire institution with the purpose of ensuring that minimum standards for quality and integrity are met.
This form of accreditation is usually offered by external quality assurance bodies and is now a common phenomenon in many countries.
Programmatic accreditation, which often follows institutional accreditation, aims at evaluating individual programmes, departments and schools within institutions.
Its particular focus rests on checking the academic standing of specific programmes offered, seeking to ensure that they meet rigorous educational quality standards.
Specialised accrediting agencies and-or professional associations can give programmatic accreditation, addressing the need for earning certification, separate from academic qualifications.
In serving this purpose, programmatic accreditation is assumed to facilitate entry into a given profession.
In some contexts, its role for employment is regarded as critical, since it has the potential of proving to prospective employers the level of competence graduates have developed during their programme.
Global and local experiences
Current trends indicate that most of the quality assurance agencies around the world, including those in developing countries, are government initiatives and clearly serve government functions. However, the purpose of accreditation is not a function left to government agencies only.
Experience shows that there have always been different arrangements in terms of who offers what type of accreditation and for what particular purpose.
In countries such as the United States, accrediting associations set up by member higher education institutions play the role of offering institutional accreditation but this appears to be a rare experience in many other countries.
In countries such as the United Kingdom (and the US as well), non-governmental entities such as professional associations, which are independent from both the government and higher education institutions, also provide the quality assurance functions through specialised accreditation schemes offered in professional areas of study.
As a useful experience, the practice of using professional associations to offer programmatic accreditation is increasingly being emulated both in the developing and developed world.
The legal authority of professional associations to offer accreditation usually derives from ‘their statutory or regulatory powers; or through marking out their territory in terms of public interest’, according to standards and guidelines for quality assurances in Ethiopia.
The practice in Ethiopia
For too long, the responsibility of accrediting institutions and programmes in the Ethiopian higher education sector has been left to a single governmental agency.
The quality assurance agency, formerly known as the Higher Education Relevance and Quality Agency, now the Education and Training Authority, ETA, has shown a remarkable growth over the past two decades.
The agency has managed to involve itself extensively in accreditation, quality audits and surprise visits which are now its major operational manifestations, in addition to its contribution to the development of policies, guidelines and regulations on quality assurance in the higher education sector.
The agency’s achievements so far have been the result of the work of a limited number of dedicated staff and management.
However, given the additional responsibilities ETA has been given outside the higher education sector, many people doubt its success and effectiveness in many areas, including its ability to beef up its capacity to a level where it will be able to discharge its responsibilities efficiently.
In spite of the past experiences of involving peer reviewers drawn from industry and business institutions in its accreditation tasks, there have been limited efforts to harness the potential of professional associations in offering programmatic accreditation.
So far, the power for granting institutional and programmatic accreditation at higher education level has been solely vested on the Higher Education Relevance and Quality Agency, now the ETA.
In addition to exacerbating its current stature, the centralisation of all accreditation roles and limited efforts made to relieve some of the authority’s unnecessary burdens continue to affect ETA’s efficiency and mar its image and credibility.
Given the excessive role the ETA is assuming now, the absence of participation from professional associations in quality education is a serious gap both the authority and the government have to contend with.
Although there are many associations that could have been involved in the programme accreditation of their respective subject areas, their involvement in influencing the quality of tertiary education remains very minimal or non-existent altogether.
Different reasons, such as weak professional institutions, have been blamed for poor participation of professional associations in the quality assurance schemes of the national authority.
However, belief in the capacity of such associations and concerted government efforts toward creating the needed capacity can change the status quo with a view to diversifying the provision of accreditation and assisting the efforts of the national accreditation authority in this direction.
Strengthened roles for professional associations
With an increased involvement of the world of work in the global higher education system, one would expect involvement from other stakeholders in the various structures and operational phases created for assuring the quality of higher education in a given national system.
As evidenced in ETA’s responsibilities and activities so far, the active involvement of stakeholders such as industry and business in the quality audit exercise is a missing element in the Ethiopian higher education sector.
In particular, professional associations have had little or no place in the Ethiopian quality assurance system, despite the many contributions they could have made.
With an expected increase in the availability of strong and robust associations and strengthened professionalism in the future, professional associations are also expected to be more interested in protecting the sanctity of their territory, which will, hopefully, create a condition whereby ETA’s exclusive domain of accreditation will be shared by other entities.
The current move in the technical and vocational education and training sector to give more space to professionals, industry and business is indicative of the directions in which the practices should be heading.
Given the responsibilities the ETA has to shoulder, it is high time that the higher education sector begins to make use of the various accreditation roles professional associations are capable of handling.
In fact, ETA’s future success in this area will be determined, not only by its capacity to strengthen its human and material resources, but its readiness and ability to draw on the assistance of professional associations in its accreditation and quality assurance activities.
Wondwosen Tamrat (PhD) is an associate professor and founding president of St Mary’s University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; a collaborating scholar of the Programme for Research on Private Higher Education at the State University of New York at Albany, United States; and coordinator of the private higher education sub-cluster of the Continental Education Strategy for Africa. He may be reached at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. This is a commentary.