Assuring Quality, Across Borders
WASHINGTON -- With the internationalization of higher education, the world of accreditation and quality assurance is likewise becoming increasing interconnected. An international seminar hosted by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation this week drew participants from around the world to discuss challenges in regulating diverse higher education systems -- and weeding out illegitimate players (i.e., degree mills) wherever they set up shop.
In a presentation that opened the two-day seminar on Wednesday, Carolyn Campbell, assistant director of the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, in the United Kingdom, outlined three “Rs” that she sees as hot topics in quality assurance internationally: ranking, regulation and reform. Pursuit of top spots in international rankings is “becoming a national aspiration, almost a badge of honor,” Campbell said. “One of the more serious issues around this desire for institutions and countries to identify their universities as 'world class' is [that] by estimates only 3 percent of students in the world go to these top-ranked universities. What about the other 97 percent of students? Who’s looking out for their interests?”
That’s where the second R -- regulation -- comes in. Campbell described efforts to redefine quality in terms of learning outcomes, and the growing adoption of qualifications frameworks (more on that later). And then, of course, there’s reform.
“In relation to all these reforms and changes, the introduction of new definitions of academic standards, the search for transparency, compatibility and comparability, there was an s word … sustainability. How sustainable are some of the reforms and some of the new initiatives in quality assurance given that we’re living in difficult economic times?" Campbell asked. "Will the money be there to carry through some of these reforms? Will some of the dismay and concern and anger at the failure of self-regulation in one sector of the economy, notably, financial services, spill over into other sectors of the economy which are self-regulating, that is, in many countries, higher education? We’re not quite sure.”
With Campbell's talk as the backdrop, the international seminar continued on Thursday, with sessions on trends in quality assurance and accreditation in Africa, Europe and the Arab region. In another session, Richard Lewis, a higher education consultant, focused in on the development of qualifications frameworks, or lists of competencies a student should demonstrate in order to receive a degree of a certain level. What competencies should the holders of a bachelor’s degree demonstrate, regardless of where they earned it? Beyond that, on a disciplinary level, what should the "typical" chemistry major know? (Coming up with common disciplinary-level expectations is done through a process known as "tuning.")
European nations have been developing qualifications frameworks as part of the Bologna Process, which involves creating a common European Higher Education Area and thereby fostering mobility. The United States, however, lacks such a qualifications framework. Or does it?
“Isn’t there a general expectation of a number of credit hours one student needs to get a degree?" Lewis asked. "And isn’t it fair to say," he continued, that a degree in physics from University A would have similarities to one from University B?
"Does that mean that the United States has an informal qualifications framework?” he asked. “Do informal systems work better than formal ones?”
Another session on Thursday focused on degree mills -- illegitimate operators. In outlining steps that can be taken to combat them, John Daniel, president and chief executive officer of the Commonwealth of Learning, placed some responsibility on governments, but also a fair amount on academics. Among his suggestions, he called for the higher education community to maintain informal systems of alerts and blacklists (informal in part because of the litigious nature of some degree mill operators), and also “for everyone to raise their game in checking credentials presented to them.” If checking credentials became the norm, Daniel said, “degree mills would soon be out of business.”
Participants and panelists also discussed a gray area: low-quality institutions that wouldn’t qualify as degree mills. One audience member suggested a clear distinction, however: Diploma mills are operating fraudulently, and must be suppressed, while for substandard institutions, isn’t the purpose of quality assurance to bring their practices up to acceptable levels?