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ACCREDITATION – Do we always do it for the "right" reasons?

If a “quality system” or a programme of “quality assurance” does not improve the way we “do” learning (or education)…we should DUMP it! Actually, it’s a bit more like a “litmus test” I use to review the effectiveness of a quality initiative or programme – after all, if a policy document or a quality process does not contribute to enhanced student learning (in one form or another) – we have to ask “what really is the point?” Now, some will jump up and say “Tony, but we have to have procedures and systems and that do not really have much to do with student learning – for example, in accounting or building maintenance”. Rubbish! The raison d'être of any organisational systems must be to support the overall purpose of the organisation – and in schools, colleges and universities that purpose is “learning” (or, at least, it should be)! For any self-respecting educational institution, learning (especially, student learning) has to be at the heart of our decision-making - accreditation is one of those decisions. Anything less is “fluff”, anything less is “self-serving”…anything else means we are focussed on doing things that do not contribute to the purpose of the institution! This is especially true when looking at “quality assurance” (actually, I really do not like this word very much…the terms “quality enhancement” or “quality improvement” are far better suited to education) – especially, in discussions about accreditation. I am not on my own in this– look at what some very well-respected accreditation bodies say about accreditation: The chief purpose of the whole accreditation process is the improvement of education for youth by evaluating the degree to which a school has attained worthwhile outcomes set by its own staff and community. This is accomplished by periodically conducting a comprehensive self-evaluation of the total school. Through the accreditation process, the school seeks the validation of its self-evaluation by obtaining professional judgement from impartial outsiders on the effectiveness of the total school operation. The intent throughout the process is more than to focus on shortcomings; the chief goal is to seek remedies for inadequacies and to identify and nurture good practices

CSS-MSA (website)Accreditation provides teachers with a process for improving student learning. Fundamentally a teacher-driven process, accreditation provides teachers with opportunities to lead and serve on improvement teams aimed at identifying and implementing the most effective strategies for improving student learning. Students are the ultimate beneficiaries of the accreditation process. When the entire school is focussed on a shared vision for learning, students win. They benefit from the enhanced focus on student performance and from greater articulation and coordination as they move from one level of schooling to another. In addition, the NCA CASI and SACS CASI accreditation seals provide an educational currency for student credits that is recognised worldwide, easing the transferability of credits among other accredited schools and enabling access to special programs, grants and scholarships

AdvancED - “Accreditation for Teachers” (booklet)Engin’s reflections on his experiences on a recent accreditation project here in Turkey echoed many of these goals – and showed that they can be realised in practice. Looking for ways to "improve" and create a "culture of quality" is the way to go! 8 However, when we dig deeper into the research on accreditation processes and other programmes of external quality assurance, we often find a very different “story”. For example, in his seminal paper on quality in education Harvey (2005) publishes a selection of the first-hand reports he gathered from teachers actively engaged in these processes. We lost three staff recently and we all have to work more contact hours, which means that research has no chance. We have had to abandon some of the original modules because there’s no one to teach them. My availability to students is minimal – we gave up essay tutorials some time back and there’s no chance of getting the end of semester coursework back to students within three weeks if I mark it properly. And yet I can’t tell QAA any of this. We have to pretend everything is fine even though we know it isn’t.

(Lecturer, name withheld – in Harvey, 2005)Everything has to be documented. All the marking has to be moderated with written reports. We spend a lot of time remarking other people’s stuff and all for the sake of a QAA visit. Every new initiative has to be seen in terms of how it will be seen at the next QAA visit. We have to keep attendance registers to show that we are trying to monitor non-attendance. All this adds up to the administrative burden and creates systems that don’t make a hoot of difference to what students get. No money comes in to improve things, it’s just pressure to make us do more bureaucracy. I haven’t seen any real changes since the last visit: it’s all cosmetic.

(Lecturer, name withheld – in Harvey, 2005)Now, maybe it’s just the UK that does a terrible job of “allthingsquality” – what we do know is that Harvey’s “lecturers” come from top-ranking British universities and QAA is the leading quality body in education in the UK. The sad truth is that these stories actually happen all over the globe. The question is “why” – and the real question is “what the hell can we do about it”… Many critics of accreditation, and there are more of them than you would imagine, lay the blame for this state of affairs at the feet of accreditation bodies themselves – and phrases like “money-grabbing”, “cultural imperialism” and “imposing foreign values” are thrown around left, right and centre! But, I’m not so sure that the accreditation bodies are to blame. 8 Most accreditation bodies (as we saw above) are very clear on their purpose and “processes” – and the vast majority of them do, in fact, “walk-their-talk”.

Accreditation is really about “externally validating” a quality culture – and the defining characteristics of a “quality culture” are not that an institution is “accredited” and has a “quality assurance system” in place. Rather a quality culture is defined by the way an institution “does business” – its purpose and the processes it uses to meet that purpose.

  1. It’s part of our wider strategy to attract more (foreign and international) students. 

  2. Our Director / Rector is really keen to get more departments accredited – we can’t say “no” to him! 

  3. We’re re-branding the school at the moment – accredited status will give us an edge over the competition. 

  4. Everyone is doing it these days – you can’t NOT be accredited in today’s market. 

  5. We need to sort out our policy framework – it’s a total mess! 

  6. It’ll give us more status and prestige as an organisation. 

  1. We’re looking for more ways to improve student learning – and help students succeed! I’m still friends with the guy that told me this! That little bit of “informal research” was an important lesson for me. The problem is that even today when I chat to people about accreditation and quality initiatives, the motivations of many institutions have not changed that much. Quality is not something you “do” just because of the “ripple effect” (the interest other organisations are showing in accreditation), to improve your marketing efforts by putting up more “wall decoration” - or even because a new Rector has a “shiny new idea”. 8 Quality is about essence and transformation – the drive to build a quality culture of learning or a learning culture of quality! Anything less:

  2. Is a