Engin Hocam, you have almost completed your first real push towards full accreditation of your programme at YU-SoFL. How does it feel to know you are almost finished?Relief - first of all! Actually, I am really glad that we stayed with the programme and met all our deadlines – you never really know how important the timelines are when you start something like this.
I have to ask - has it really been worth it? How has going through the process benefitted Yaşar University?It was definitely worth it – whether we become accredited or not! The process itself was very rewarding in itself. It was a great opportunity to reflect on our own practices and operations in a systematic and scientific way. All our policies, procedures and processes have been improved - if not reviewed as a whole. I can see the “bigger picture” even better now. The drive for this process is to adhere to internationally recognized quality standards in language teaching and there is no better way to do this than with the CEA.
You mention CEA (the Commission on English Language Program Accreditation) – why did you select this accreditation body? That decision came after many long discussions and gatherings. There were two main reasons why we chose CEA over say other bodies or agencies - in other words, American over European. At first, we looked at the accredited institutions of both American and European bodies; after all, being accredited means joining a “league of schools”. We found out that the programs that are accredited by CEA are similar to our program at Yaşar - namely IEP’s serving as a foundation year at English medium universities. I haven’t heard of many prep or foundation programs in universities across Continental Europe. There are some universities in the UK offering pre-sessional courses, but they are not as common as they are in US. We thought as a school we would better fit in the CEA setting.
So, what did the “CEA route” entail for you all at Yaşar?First of all - it is a long, demanding process. It takes 2 to 3 years depending on the size and structure of your program. The first and most common mistake is that people generally underestimate the process - by looking at the “standards”, you tend to think 2 years is just too long. But it is not!
What have some of the benefits of the whole process been – how has it improved the way Yaşar “does business”? Everybody says the school they run is the “best”. The issue is who or what decides which school is good or bad? What criteria do schools use to evidence that they are the best? The process helps back up such claims – or, at least, helps schools see their weaknesses and start fixing them. There are more than 150 universities now in Turkey, with at least 100 of them housing an IEP at which more than 100.000 students study annually. With that many programs and students involved, it is inevitable that the question of quality in EFL education will arise and what better way do you know than international accreditation and recognition.
What about Y ÖK? What role did they play in the wider process – how did they support you? When Teresa O’Donnell, executive director of CEA, was in İzmir visiting us, I spent most of my time trying to explain the role and weight of YÖK in tertiary education here. YÖK is the ultimate policy-making, governing and auditing entity in the country and no operation can be in conflict with their policies. It is not easy for a person who is coming from a rather decentralized and autonomous higher education system to fully understand this. For instance, there is a standard regarding student recruitment, which does not make any sense to us as Turkish administrators since students come from a "central pool" created through a "central examination". We do not directly recruit students - save for the so-called “Özel Yetenek Sınavı”. Therefore we just skipped that standard! In fact, the first question I asked was that what we do when we come across a standard in conflict with local regulations or laws. CEA agreed that local laws should prevail when/if there is a conflict but it is has to be explained and/or justified. Even though that advice seemed like a "solution", it created a problem; all relevant laws, bylaws, regulations, resolutions etc are in Turkish and no English version is available on the YÖK webpage or anywhere else. Considering the volume of YÖK regulations involved, it is impossible to translate everything. CEA had to trust our own interpretations of YÖK policies and practices.
Most people will know that accreditation is a voluntary method of quality assurance or institutional effectiveness (your outline of the CEA process shows this) - but what does it mean for students and teachers, in practice? There have been a lot of changes in almost everything we do - but the major ones are in performance management, data and record keeping and most importantly the review of policies. An accreditation cycle requires review of all policies and procedures from curriculum to document retention by all those involved in these systems and processes. This is good evidence that accreditation values “on-going or continuous development" rather than just being a “final destination” – going for accreditation is really the “starting point”! Accreditation bodies advocate for “minimum quality standards” – but this does not mean that institutions cannot go that extra mile and take things further.
The term accreditation is today closely linked to the notion of a “culture of quality” – how has it changed the culture of Yaşar? First of all, it was amazing to see the commitment of the staff during the process. When we first announced we were going for accreditation, there were a lot of "raised eyebrows" and "mumbles" in the initial meeting. However, over the course of time I witnessed how enthusiastic, motivated and engaged people were. This is probably because they saw the positive changes that were affecting their lives over the course of time. The changes introduced provided a more fair, transparent and sustainable workplace for the faculty.
Accreditation is not without its critics in Turkey. There are some that claim that it is all a big exercise in creating “unnecessary documentation” and that the process just results in more work for teachers – without any real benefits for students. Others say institutions just do it as a means of getting a certificate they can put “up on a wall”. How would you address these criticisms? There were standards which we were compliant with, but just needed to document, as you put it. Nonetheless, there were many standards we were not compliant with and these required a great deal of work – and a lot of time. Accreditation bodies are not really interested in promises and run the site visits to see systems operating (not just look at paper). Putting in policies that we did not have and making them work was the most challenging task.
OK – wrapping up. If you were to give some advice to other universities considering accreditation, what would that be? How can they perhaps get ready to embark on the journey? I would strongly discourage anyone who is thinking about it on a “one-man-show” basis – "champions" willing to run the process all alone and prepare the report by himself/herself. A bad idea! The starting point has to be a carefully-chosen and well-structured steering committee. The steering committee at Yaşar was made up of five team members (see below, from left to right: Nisha Agha, Ian Collins, Banu Özkaya, Özge Deliorman, Berrin Alpınar) – all with different skills and strengths and they have done a great job so far (thank you, guys)!
One last question. If you could go back and do the whole thing again, what (if anything) would you do differently? I think I can probably answer that question better in a few months – after March 2012. What I will say, however, is that I wish I had known about CEA when I first started at Yaşar in 2005.
Engin – thanks a million! We look forward to an update (and some good news) in 2012! More… Çay veya Simit? A good, long summer break, perhaps! As promised, there will be a "Part Three" to this series on accreditation - as a bit of "prep" for that, consider the following from Winder: