Inside Accreditation
Volume 5, Number 5, July 23, 2009



Judith S. Eaton

More than 1,000 people came together at the July 2009 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Conference on Higher Education (WCHE) and adopted by consensus a Communiqué of 52 statements, many with multiple recommendations, addressing higher education and its future. The document covers topics from the social responsibility of higher education to access and equity in research and innovation. From my perspective as a participant in the conference, it was clear that a firm basis for UNESCO’s future work in higher education had been established.

Attention to Quality Assurance

Quality in higher education and quality assurance are prominent in the Communiqué, addressed in 10 of the 52 statements and recommendations and signifying the growing importance of this topic. Several themes emerged, with the Communiqué not only emphasizing quality when addressing, e.g., access and equity or research, but also speaking vigorously to the need for more and better quality assurance systems.  And, as part of the attention to quality, the document calls for additional efforts to eliminate degree mills.

It is the emphasis on quality assurance systems that is perhaps of greatest significance, with the Communiqué stressing the importance of establishing the standards, processes and structures essential to assuring and improving quality at national, regional and international levels: 

Quality requires…establishing quality assurance systems…(Paragraph 19)...(Q)uality assurance mechanisms…should be put in place for the entire higher education sector….(Paragraph 20)…Globalisation has highlighted the need for the establishment of national accreditation and quality assurance systems along with promotion of networking among them…(Paragraph 30) and…Put in place and strengthen appropriate quality assurance systems and regulatory frameworks…(Paragraph 51.c).

This focus on quality assurance systems is further underscored when the 2009 Communiqué is compared to the document that emerged from the 1998 UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education. The 1998 Declaration did not speak of systems at all. Nor did it address quality as extensively, with three issues addressed in one of seventeen Articles and fourteen proposed Priority Actions. The focus was more general and aspirational, speaking to the importance of quality with regard to all dimensions and functions of higher education, e.g., academic programs, faculty, services, facilities and evaluation, with less attention to how this might be done. There was, overall, more emphasis on quality – rather than quality assurance – in 1998.

And, while the 1998 document emphasized international quality, it also stressed the importance of cultural and other differences. Attention to quality at an international level is to be tempered with particular attention to “specific institutional, national and regional contexts in order to take into account diversity and to avoid uniformity.” (Article 11.a). The 2009 Communiqué, on the other hand, makes a clear case that while acknowledging differences is important, attention to differences needs to be balanced with additional emphasis on convergence, reciprocity and mutual recognition, all part of building a comprehensive international quality assurance capacity.

Implications for the United States

Examination of the Communiqué suggests several emerging issues for the U.S. accreditation and academic communities. First, the document places considerable emphasis on the role of government in quality assurance, the tone set by Paragraph 1 that “Higher Education as a public good is the responsibility of…especially governments.” This is not new; government has a major interest in assuring quality as part of its overall responsibility for higher education. But it does underscore the continuing challenge for the United States, with nongovernmental organizations that have primary responsibility for quality assurance through accreditation, in assuring mutual understanding with other countries and becoming partners in international initiatives. The international emphasis on government authority for quality assurance is yet another variable as the United States attempts to maintain an appropriate balance of accountability to government and the historic independence of both accreditation and higher education institutions.

Second, the prominent attention to quality assurance systems brings with it an important discussion of two tools that, while not specifically mentioned in the Communiqué, have increasingly been adopted by a number of countries, but not the United States. These are qualifications frameworks  [alignment of education levels (degrees, credentials, qualifications) with expected student competencies] and ranking systems. At present, 62 countries have these frameworks. Regional structures such as the European Qualifications Framework are on the increase. These frameworks are seen as vehicles for assuring reciprocity and reliability across countries as students move internationally and want to carry their credits and credentials with them. This expanding interest and investment in frameworks as a major tool to address quality internationally is beginning to affect thinking in the United States and may ultimately influence future efforts – whether from the private sector or government – to address quality.

Rankings as a tool for quality assurance are growing in popularity in countries outside the United States, even as we continue to debate, e.g., US News and World Report and The Princeton Review. Forty-six countries are using this tool and a number of world or regional rankings initiatives are in place. To date, no government (state or federal) rankings initiative has been developed in the United States. Accrediting organizations have not moved in this direction. However, as with qualifications frameworks, attention to regional or world rankings may come to play a larger role in U.S. deliberations about quality. And, continued growth in national rankings systems may result in the U.S. academic and accreditation communities expanding their interest in developing this tool.

Third, the Communiqué envisions a future in which higher education institutions play an even more important role as a globalized and interconnected world economy relies more and more heavily on types of employment for which conceptual capacity is paramount and for which at least some tertiary or higher education is needed. The emphasis on globalism and world interconnectedness, in turn, places pressure on all countries to seek convergence, rather than differentiation, of higher education capacity and quality assurance.

The 2009 Communiqué, with its emphasis on quality assurance systems, the role of government and its call for more attention to convergence in the international academic and quality assurance communities, indicates the challenges for U.S. higher education institutions and accrediting organizations as they seek to establish and expand their international presence and activity.

Inside Accreditation is a publication intended to keep presidents of CHEA member institutions informed about developments in external quality review of higher education.

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