Accreditation Council revisited
HAT is Accreditation?
Accreditation is a kind of certification based on detailed peer reviews by an independent neutral high powered globally recognized agency, commonly known as Accreditation Council (AC) to the effect that the institution seeking accreditation has institutionalized a functioning academic system geared to providing, on regular basis, higher education of high quality, to advancing knowledge through faculty scholarship (research and publications), and to producing graduates who have achieved specified learning goals (working as highly skilled manpower and professional leaders). Accreditation relates to good academic standing of the university or its constituent component such as college of business or college of engineering. Accreditation is granted after the institution seeking accreditation fulfils a given set of conditions that leads to academic quality assurance. A university or any of its academic programs if accredited is usually considered of better quality than those which are not accredited. Countries having many universities are likely to have accreditation council. AC may be privately sponsored or state sponsored. As per Article # 38 (1) of the Private University Act 2010, Bangladesh, the government will establish an Accreditation Council for private universities.
With a view to determining the level of quality assurance, many types of assessments are carried out both by the applicant university and the AC. Whether the university is qualified to impart progressively high quality higher education is assessed and documented at two stages during the accreditation process.
Stage 1: the applicant university is required to prepare a “self-assessment report”, and submit the same to the accreditation agency for peer review.
Stage 2: the accreditation agency reviews the “self-assessment report” submitted by the applicant university, along with additional quality assurance dimensions not clearly dealt with in the “self-assessment report”; thereby completes what is called “peer review report”, and then declares whether the accreditation is granted or not.
The activities undertaken at stage-1 and stage-2 tend sometimes to overlap, although they are by and large distinct. Description of the activities in these two stages as given below, show fulfillment of the accreditation criteria leads to quality assurance.
Stage-1: The first step for the university interested in accreditation is to notify the AC to the effect that it seeks accreditation. The process of getting accredited is long. It is also quite expensive. Actual initiative is taken by the university long before the application is submitted. For example, the concerned university before submitting application may constitute a permanent working group consisting of senior professors and administrators. It is usually called “quality improvement cell” or “accreditation cell”. It is similar to the “Internal Quality Assurance Cell”, Bangladesh Private University Act 2010 wants all the private universities to establish under Article # 36. Its function is to recommend measures to improve the university quality so as to enable it to gain accreditation. It may also be assigned to prepare a “self-assessment report”. The self-assessment, also called self-audited report focuses on the strength and weakness of the university or any of its specific programs. While doing this self-auditing exercise, the applicant university uses aset of assessment criteria contained in the accreditation Manual supplied by the AC. During self-assessment exercise, the university records why particular programmes are strong and other programmes are weak. It also describes the management and governance practices that influence the academic performances of the university. The self-assessment report in fact contains credentials/qualifications with documented evidences the applicant university claims to be good enough to win accreditation.
Stage 2: The self-assessment report is reviewed and validated by several on-site visits of a team of external peer reviewers designated by AC. During on-site visits, the peer review team meets the members of the “quality improvement cell”, all senior teachers, chairmen, deans, pro-vice chancellor and vice chancellor and senior administrators and exchange views on the contents of the documents attached to the self-assessment report. The peer review team suggests the areas where the university needs to improve. For example, although teachers are well qualified, their teaching load may be too high, say, on average, a fulltime teacher is required to teach five courses / sections. If this is the situation, research is likely to be neglected. Unless teaching load is reduced by hiring more teachers or the number of sections per teacher is reduced, the university is likely to be only a teaching university. As a result accreditation may be deferred.
Accreditation is granted after detailed assessments of the academic performance of the applicant university or its constituent college/department. It is to be noted that most assessments are done jointly by the applicant university and the AC in a cooperative environment. This is carried out using a globally accepted predetermined set of criteria such as academic and research profiles and scholarly recognition of teachers, demonstrated academic achievements of the students (high quality students), research facilities and other necessary supports available to the teachers and students, degree of internationalization (number of students from foreign countries and high profile visiting professors from world class universities), and all kinds of infrastructural facilities necessary to enrich teaching-learning environment including the best management practices and good governance. These are only a few examples of criteria. There are many assessment criteria, and they may vary depending on the type of the university seeking accreditation. If a university fulfils the conditions embodied in the criteria stated in the accreditation Manual it is almost certain that the university concerned will provide best quality education and stand as world class universities.
Accreditation is dynamic
Accreditation by a nationally or globally reputable accrediting agency is considered as an effective measure for quality assurance. It assesses if appropriate academic standards are maintained and a built-in mechanism operates internally to continually improve the quality of education. It is not static, that is, its process does not end with the achievement of a given level of quality. Rather, it is dynamic in the sense that accreditation calls for continual improvement in the education quality.
Accreditation is not ranking
Granting accreditation does not indicate any ranking of the university concerned, like the best or second best among a group of accredited universities. It is a global recognition and it enhances the university reputation. Once a university is granted accreditation by a globally recognised AC, it is generally perceived that the university is a top class university.
Quality assurance has emerged as the single most concern for the private universities in Bangladesh. But what is quality and how can quality be assured? Who judge quality?
Perhaps, it is the market that finally judges quality of education by hiring or refusing to hire the graduates of the university concerned. Another measure may be the recognition accorded to the demonstrated achievements of the graduates of the university by the global academic and scholarly community. For example, graduates with undergraduate degrees from the university concerned get admitted into graduate /Ph.D. programs with scholarships of top universities of the world. Or globally renowned scholars recognize papers published by the graduates of universities under reference in refereed journals. There are additional dimensions of quality that may be looked into. In reality, quality measurement is a very complex issue. For example, education is imparted to produce “enlightened persons” or “responsible citizens” or “persons of high moral value”, or the university offers degrees that include socially undesirable courses, etc. People can struggle to define these types of educated persons or “socially undesirable courses” or for that matter, may try to define an agreed upon benchmark of quality. It is difficult to agree on the respective definition. Here I do not want to engage in debatable situation; rather take an easy course and define quality/ quality assurance in a very crude and functional way.
There are 79 private universities in Bangladesh.
All of them do not provide equally high quality education. Looking at the vision and mission of these universities, one may conclude that they serve segmented markets and their standards correspond to respective market segmentation. One of the ways one can measure the quality of education is to determine how the graduates of these universities have been empowered while they studied at the universities. Obviously, all of these universities have not empowered their graduates equally well. The effectiveness of empowerment is demonstrated by the success of the graduates in demonstrating their achievements in respective professional fields. Professional fields include paid employment, (top business executives, bankers, research scientists, lawyers, physicians, architects, professors/scholars, bureaucrats, political leaders, etc. Additional examples might be self-employment( founders of top business houses, NGOs, women entrepreneurs, etc).If graduates of a particular group of universities tend to get much higher than average salary at the entry level jobs (also better ranks),or can establish themselves at their early life as professional leaders, one can conclude that these universities provide higher quality education. The situation may be observed for the next 10-15 years to find how these graduates demonstrate their leadership quality, i.e. how they climb up the ladder. If the number of high performing alumni of universities belonging to group “A” is much higher than those of universities belonging to group “B” then the “A” group universities are of higher quality.
Beside high visibility of alumni, a proper mix of high profile scholars, researchers, teachers, and students determines the quality and image of a university. In addition, good governance and best management practices institutionalize quality assurance process. Good governance is reflected by good working relationship between the university, UGC and the ministry of education. For best management practices, it is necessary for the university to be compliant to the Private University Act 2010. An amicable working relationship between the Trustee Board and the University management is necessary for quality assurance.
Market segmentation, quality and accreditation
Most private universities are market and tuition driven. They offer degrees that can be sold at prices the universities charge. Tuitions and other fees vary from university to university depending on the market segment universities target. The market segments are based on the perceived quality and price. One segment may, for example, be very expensive. Universities that target to serve such markets are perceived as imparting the “best quality” education in the country, while others may be less expensive, and are perceived as the “lower quality”. These market segments correspond to wealthy, upper middle class, middle class, financially and locationally disadvantaged ( families living in remote rural areas having restricted access to universities) classes. The rich parents who want their children to study at the most expensive universities perceive that these institutions provide not only best quality education but also ensure high quality services, facilities and amenities. High price is often equated with high quality. One the other hand, relatively less rich parents opt for relatively less expensive universities. These universities charge lower tuition and other fees to attract students who are relatively poor or otherwise disadvantaged, perhaps compromising quality of education. This perceived quality based on market segmentation bears a special implication for accreditation. Accreditation for which universities need to spend lot of money carries the highest value for those universities that want to be known as world class universities. Main mission of these universities is stated to produce graduates who are expected to outperform not only in the national competitive environment but also in international competitive environment. The ability and quality of such universities need to be validated by an adequately qualified, independent and neutral third party, viz. AC. Their reputation greatly depends on whether they are accredited by a globally reputable AC. The number of such universities that aspire to be world class is not small; in fact, it tends to increase. For them AC plays important roles.
Against this, there are middle and lower level universities. They do not hire globally renowned expensive scholars to teach and do research. They have more part time than full time teachers. Their mission is to produce graduates barely qualified for mid or lower end of employment markets. They are usually unable to meet the requirements of full-fledged accreditation. Similarly, Only teaching university may not seek accreditation of a high powered AC. For them mere membership of the government sponsored AC may be enough. This membership is a prerequisite of and not equal to accreditation. This membership demonstrates that the university imparts a minimum level of quality education which is lower than world class.
Accreditation Council (AC)
AC may be sponsored by the government or private initiatives. Article 38 (1) of the Private University Act 2010 requires establishment of an AC for private universities. It is not yet clear whether each university will have to be accredited by the said AC. However, it is assumed that each university has to be a member of AC. Such membership will authorize the university to operate legally. Perhaps membership will also indicate that university will impart a minimum but acceptable level of quality education which is not necessarily world class quality. Since accreditation is expensive, it would be prudent on the part of the university to undertake a cost-benefit exercise. It should seek accreditation only if benefits outweigh the costs. It is to be noted that, before starting its function of accreditation, the AC itself, must acquire its own recognition in the regional nd preferably global academic community; otherwise its accreditation will not carry much value. AC itself must be of very high stature. Almost all countries have accreditation councils. Many of them are globally recognised such as, CHEA (Council for Higher Education Accreditation, Washington DC), AACSBI (Association to Advance Collegiate School of Business International, St. Louis MO, USA), EQUIS (European Quality Improvement System, Brussels), SAQS (South Asian Quality Improvement System), Hyderabad, India, National Assessment and Accreditation Council of India, and many others. It is hoped that the accreditation council to be established by the government of Bangladesh will gain high enough recognition to add prestige and credibility to the university it would accredit. It is to be noted that accreditation function is both intellectually and physically demanding. Given so many academic dimensions, complex assessments and competing stakeholders involved, it is difficult to avoid subjectivity while decisions are taken during accreditation process. If the review team cannot complete the assessments in unbiased ways, the whole job of peer review may be questionable. Therefore AC has to be careful at each step.
The writer is a Professor Emeritus, BRAC University & Former Vice Chancellor, North South University