Higher Education Accreditation in an International Context
The United States, and a small but increasing number of other countries, use the process of voluntary accreditation to assure minimum standards of quality in the operation and delivery of educational services. The idea of having institutions do self-policing through accrediting associations is not universal, and most countries accomplish quality assurance via recognition or approval by a government agency, or a government-approved quality assurance authority, or both.
Voluntary accreditation is a product of America's decentralized and market-oriented higher education system with its large private sector component. Accreditation by nongovernmental (or at least noncentral) bodies has happened in other situations: (1) in other federal states, such as Belgium, Canada, and Russia; (2) in countries that have consciously adopted parts of the American model, such as the Philippines and parts of eastern Europe; and (3) in countries where the formal regulation of quality assurance is a new development, such as Australia. Even in these countries, however, the requirement of quality assurance is not often totally voluntary, but usually proceeds from a national mandate or set of laws. This is due to historical traditions of state control or leadership in education; to the nature of the chartering and control of institutions; and to the lack of diversity, collegial traditions, and the small and elite character of the higher education sector in most national systems. Relatively few higher education systems in the world have a large or vigorous private sector, and many have laws or policies that restrict private institutions or make it difficult for them to operate. All these factors contribute to the tendency of institutional recognition and accreditation to be a traditional monopoly of the state in most parts of the world.
Globalization has challenged this status quo in two major ways. First, the increased cross-border movement of people, and the evolution of multistate agreements, such as the European Union, MERCOSUR, and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), have caused national authorities and educators to have to develop mechanisms for the international recognition of legitimate institutions, diplomas, and credits. The old informal arrangements between friendly institutions and faculty no longer suffice to assure either recognizable quality or adequate legal protection for institutions, graduates, or employers. Second, the rise of the multinational private commercial and professional sectors has created a whole universe of qualifications and educational providers. These vary widely in quality, and lie outside the regulatory reach of national authorities whose mandates focus on–and often restrict–their attention to public higher education and state sector jobs. The concept of voluntary accreditation is frequently better suited to quality assurance in this fluid transnational environment than are traditional methods, particularly as these are often restricted by laws and practices that ignore private institutions and limit the acceptance of foreign institutions and degrees. Accreditation is also a means for devoting serious attention to quality assurance by organizations that prefer to keep governmental regulation limited. It also allows governments that would prefer to limit their regulatory regimes to accommodate both the public's need for quality assurance and a desire to work via consensus with educational providers.
International organizations such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Council of Europe, the European Union, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and the Asia-Pacific Economic Corporation (APEC) have recognized the need for transparent and reliable procedures for recognizing institutions and degrees across borders, and even across global regions. These organizations have incorporated international educational mobility (of students, faculty, and institutions) and the mutual recognition of nationally accredited or approved institutions and qualifications (degrees and diplomas) into their treaties and other agreements. Examples of agreements in this area include the Lisbon Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications Pertaining to Higher Education in the European Region (UNESCO and the Council of Europe, 1997), the Bologna Process (European Union, 1999), the APEC Education Dialogue and Knowledge Sharing Network, and the education and professional mobility components of NAFTA. Except for the European Union's Bologna Process, none of these agreements binds national authorities or educational institutions to preset standards or commitments. They do contribute to an evolving international consensus on the need for information systems, agreed procedures, and quality assurance mechanisms for higher education: Business and government need to assure educational quality; and this will occur voluntarily, through accreditation-like mechanisms, or it will be regulated in other ways.
E. STEPHEN HUNT
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