International Seminar III
and International Commission Meeting

January 23-25, 2002
San Francisco, CA

The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) held its third International Seminar on January 24, 2002. Approximately 100 people were in attendance. As with the two previous seminars, this meeting took place in conjunction with the CHEA Annual Conference. The three major papers that were presented at the seminar addressed quality assurance and national and international interests and tensions, issues in international quality assurance for distance learning, and critical issues for international quality assurance ethics and the market.

CHEA also held the first meeting of its International Commission. This commission, appointed by the CHEA board of directors for a three-year period, has 42 members from 20 countries. The commission functions as a deliberating, coordinating and communication body to address quality review issues affecting students, institutions, and quality assurance and accreditation organizations around the world. Issues on which the commission is concentrating include quality in distance learning, market forces and quality in higher education, and national and international quality review initiatives and enhancing equity for students and nations.

Each of the major topics discussed at the International Seminar is summarized here, accompanied by suggestions for action from members of the International Commission. In addition to these topics, this summary includes the commission's consideration of the World Trade Organization (WTO) liberalization of trades in service through the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS).

Quality Assurance in an International Environment: National and International Interest and Tensions
Dirk Van Damme, general director of the Flemish Interuniversity Council, addressed the seminar's first topic. Mr. Van Damme urged that the international higher education community take an assertive leadership role in the debate on globalization. He argued for a "regulatory framework" for international quality control in higher education. Mr. Van Damme also identified significant issues that need to be addressed if we were to establish this regulatory framework such as identification of quality across boundaries, respect for institutional autonomy, concern to avoid standardization, and societal demands for accountability.

While indicating that an international regulatory model was his strong preference, Mr. Van Damme nonetheless explored alternative approaches to international quality review. These included enhancing international quality review through strategies to improve communication and exchange; additional cooperation among quality assurance agencies; mutual forms of recognition; development of a framework of trustworthy international quality assurance that could become an international code of good practice; a validation and quality evaluation procedure for existing quality assurance and accreditation systems; development of meta-accreditation on the international level; and development of an international accreditation agency.

In the conversation following Mr. Van Damme's presentation, seminar participants briefly discussed a draft proposal for an "International Quality Label" that has been developed by the International Association of University Presidents (IAUP) and the International Network for Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education (INQAAHE) as one example of a global regulatory framework. The label is one means of establishing the reliability of quality assurance and accreditation organizations. Seminar participants expressed strong views about the label, both in support of the concept and in opposition to it.

A panel discussion also followed the presentation. Panel members focused on how to take advantage of the benefits and opportunities of international cooperation. The Washington Accord, a nine-country cooperative initiative in engineering education and substantial equivalency and accreditation, was offered as an example of a highly successful undertaking that involves a modest number of countries and is focused on one area of education.

Other panel members stressed the difficulties of obtaining agreement on any global framework for quality assurance and questioned the need for international quality assurance. Concerns were expressed about protectionist policies, nationalism, and sovereignty. The World Trade Organization (WTO) efforts at liberalization of trade in services through the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) was singled out as one focus of concern for a number of countries.

The 1999 Bologna Declaration in Europe was offered as one example of the challenge of dialogue and agreement on questions of quality assurance. The Bologna declaration focuses on strengthening European higher education through, among other initiatives, additional attention to student mobility, recognition of qualifications and transfer of credit. The declaration stresses increased compatibility but not uniformity - its emphasis is on diversity. There needs to be caution on the part of those thinking about an international quality assurance structure and concern for defending diversity and avoiding the risks of uniformity.

At the International Commission meeting, members focused on what the commission might do to reconcile international and national interests. A number of suggestions were made:

  • Provide information about work in quality assurance and accreditation from a number of countries at a single location (e.g., a Website).
  • Further strengthen partnerships among quality assurance and accreditation organizations.
  • Identify good practices in quality review that might be shared and adopted internationally.
  • Urge additional cooperation among nation-based quality assurance and accreditation organizations as well as international organizations (e.g., IAUP, INQAAHE) to set an international agenda.
  • Encourage regional cooperation in capacity building for quality assurance and accreditation.
  • Upon request, assist countries that are at the initial stages of developing quality and assurance capacity.

Quality Assurance for Distance Learning: Issues for International Discussion and Action
Simon Marginson, professor and director of the Centre for Research in International Education, Monash University, addressed the seminar's second topic, quality assurance in distance learning. Mr. Marginson indicated that distance learning was, for some, just another mode of delivery of higher education. However, in his view, distance learning is significantly different from face-to-face education. He argued that distance learning differed from traditional education primarily in its governance, noting that costs were about the same - sometimes higher for distance learning - and that the profit potential had been grossly exaggerated.

Mr. Marginson focused on what he called the "theoretical issues" of distance learning: the ability to engage in e-learning, the feasibility of a world wide higher education network, the unequal exchanges involved in distance learning, the implications of design and implementation in culturally sensitive contexts, and assertions that quality assurance is nation specific. Mr. Marginson also noted a number of concerns about how to regulate distance learning across borders: how to address public good issues based on the nation state (the defense of national interests), how to track e-learning communications, the potential to evaluate universities in this context and how nations might control the use of the term "university." He suggested that a global framework for distance learning should be a priority and that we need to understand the normative basis of distance learning and be clear about both the different kinds of institutions involved in e-learning and the different kinds of learning.

In the panel discussion that followed, panel members noted that the issue of change was at the heart of the discussion of distance learning. Distance learning is playing a significant role in many countries and has already emerged as a factor in international higher education and quality review. Some panel members stressed that the best decisions in higher education are made locally and expressed some worry about a global framework for distance learning. Perceived cultural imperialism and Westernization are also potential causes for concern in distance learning. Countries need mutual exchange and to learn from one another. In the same vein, attention needs to be paid to the impact of growing commercialization of higher education and the danger that social and cultural dimensions of higher education would not be adequately addressed by distance learning.

The discussion then focused on the impetus for distance learning in Africa and the need to provide education opportunities in context in which 70% of the population is under 45 years of age. Traditional institutions cannot accommodate the majority of students wanting a higher education. Distance learning is the only realistic option, in spite of the preference for more traditional education. At the primary and secondary education level, worst hit by AIDS, distance learning using the Web was needed to help replace teachers lost to disease. There are many challenges here: too few distance-learning providers, difficulty in the regulation of distance-learning providers, and dubious providers of distance learning attempting to operate within the country. Quality assurance is badly needed - as is international assistance.

At the International Commission meeting, members offered a number of suggestions about what the commission might do. These included:

  • Undertaking a study of international standards and quality assurance criteria of different national quality assurance and accrediting organizations.
  • Developing strategies to deal with questionable providers of distance education.
  • Undertaking research on distance learning such as identifying various types of distance learning, providing data about number of students involved in distance learning, and identifying needs of student learners internationally.
  • Working with other organizations to develop some kind of international system of evaluation of quality assurance internationally.
  • Addressing questions that students should ask around the world (as CHEA has in the U.S. with its 12 Important Questions about External Quality Review).

International Quality Assurance, Ethics, and the Market: Critical Issues
Mala Singh, executive director of the Council on Higher Education, Higher Education Quality Committee in South Africa, presented the third topic of the seminar. She noted that transnational higher education provided both tremendous opportunities and formidable challenges. Ms. Singh listed a number of these: difficulty of obtaining reliable information, credit transfer, recognition of qualifications, shared quality assurance standards and practices, the political and cultural context of quality, the role for quality assurance in fostering social and economic purposes of governments, the implications of both higher education export and import, and the responsibilities of international organizations to monitor and act in this arena.

Ms. Singh raised a number of questions about markets: How should the role of markets be addressed? How should "market" be defined? What needs to be done to address consumer demand and protection? What are the responsibilities of those who export to developing countries? Can exports be defined in terms of importer's needs? Is there a service obligation - something beyond lucrative markets?

Ms. Singh then focused on the political and cultural dimensions of international quality review. What can be done to promote quality internationally? How might the issue of the public good be addressed in an international context? How can local expertise be included? How will developing countries be involved in any effort to develop an international quality assurance framework? Ms. Singh indicated that a values framework was essential to inform quality assurance. How does a country hold on to its own values when funds for higher education and quality assurance are limited?

A panel discussion followed the presentation. Panel members discussed the value of considering the international arena as a continuum from a totally regulated market to one that is totally free - a continuum of controls. Hong Kong, for example, has 404 courses accredited at the present time from many countries with the largest number from Australia and the UK. In this context, exporters have ethical obligations.

The panel then pointed out that all countries have part of their existence outside their borders. The issue is how do we have access to it, what does it cost, if it is free what are the values imbedded in it, how do we adapt to local needs? Accreditors were asked if they wanted to hear about negative experiences with any of their institutions. The issue of the for-profit providers versus nonprofit was noted. What are their social obligations?

At the International Commission meeting, members discussed definitions of quality in different contexts and implications for international higher education. Participants then focused attention on ethical and market issues. Among the suggestions for a commission agenda were:

  • Continue to explore the use of key terms in quality assurance and accreditation in an international context. What are these terms? How are they used in different countries or regions? How are they used internationally?
  • Focus on ethical considerations and problems of export and import: What are the appropriate standards for reliable and responsible import and export? Are there examples of helpful principles of good practice? What is the role of quality assurance?
  • Provide more information on student achievement and outcomes.
  • Extend the scope of the commission's effort to include new international providers, including those providing certificates, diplomas, licenses (e.g., Sylvan, Microsoft, IBM).

Quality Assurance, Accreditation and International Trade
Quality assurance and accreditation of higher education are part of the recent proposals that have been made to include higher education services under the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) agreement of the World Trade Organization (WTO). The current round of discussions of trade in services began in January 2000 with the intent of finalizing an agreement by March 31, 2003.

Jeanne Archibald, partner and director of International Trade Practice Group, Hogan & Hartson, L.L.P., addressed the commission on this issue. She indicated that the quality assurance and accreditation communities need to be significantly involved in the GATS discussion. Ms. Archibald discussed the feasibility of rules to govern the provision of quality assurance and accreditation service, the nature of those rules, authority to enforce them, whether or not there will be uniform expectations about compliance given the variations between countries in terms of education systems, governance, and the role of national government. She pointed out that there are more questions than answers at this stage of the GATS discussion.

A panel followed Ms. Archibald's presentation. Panel members discussed whether trade agreements were an appropriate context in which to address quality assurance issues. A number of questions were raised about the need for quality assurance and accreditation to be include in the discussion, the complexity of including them, the worry about unintended consequences of including quality assurance and accreditation and the implications for private and public providers of higher education.

Panel members asked about the likely impact of GATS on institutions, students, and governments. While some governments are participating in the GATS discussion, representatives of the higher education and quality assurance and accreditation communities express strong reservations about this international regulation.

In general, there is a great deal of concern about the creating of standards that supercede national standards and treating knowledge as a commodity - even when called a service - and whether this will lead to knowledge being transmitted by bureaucrats rather than educators.

Next Steps
Based on the seminar presentations, panels and discussions of the commission members, CHEA will develop, with the help of a steering committee (a small group of commission members), a list of projects that will become the focus of future commission activity. These projects will address the next steps that the commission can take to respond to quality assurance issues related to national and international interests, distance learning, the market and public good. These projects will get underway in 2002 and be discussed at the 2003 International Commission meeting.

Last Modified: Jul 14, 2015

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