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Why Higher-Education Accreditors Need International Offices

How to make sure that educational programs that originate in one country but are delivered in another are of high quality?

The University of Nottingham, in Britain, operates a campus in Malaysia.

Up to now, accreditors and other quality-assurance agencies have attempted to adapt existing procedures to these international engagements – essentially trying to shoehorn them into a model that isn’t a good fit.

For the most part, quality assurance has been domestically focused: designed to review domestic programs that serve a mostly domestic audience. It is inherently built on widely accepted cultural norms of the country. For example, in the United States, the accreditation process is widely based on the idea of shared governance, in which faculty are fully engaged in the institutional review process. But not all countries believe as fully in academic freedom, and shared governance is not always a part of universities around the world – potentially curtailing the involvement of faculty in the process of assessing quality.

Cross-border quality assurance is a topic that we have written about before, but Kevin’s recent visit to the Council for Higher Education Accreditation’s January conference raised additional questions for us. In light of globalization and the rise of multinational colleges and universities, quality assurance is at a crossroads.

Webster University, based in St. Louis, operates campuses in several countries. Pictured here is its campus in the Netherlands.

Determining the quality of programs in another country is no easy task. It is not sufficient to focus attention on the same sort of institutionwide auditing and self-examinations that work well for traditionally organized programs on the main campus and simply trust that the internal mechanisms of universities will work smoothly overseas. Peer review of academic programs involving evaluators who have no experience in a foreign country may miss the cultural and political contexts under which an overseas outpost is operating.

To be sure, it is not strictly necessary to be physically present at the site of a quality-assurance review. Documents can provide much of what is required to demonstrate internal quality-control procedures, and there are plenty of technological substitutes for face-to-face communication that allow the administrators and staff at the site to be queried about academic practices. But if the agency is here, and the program is there, it is much easier for something to slip through the cracks. Whether the result of credulity by the quality-review panel or a subterfuge spearheaded by the program staff, distance creates opportunity for weaker programs to evade rigorous evaluation.

Site visits are partial antidotes to the distance problem. Accreditors and others can travel to the foreign location to verify written documentation and gain on-the-ground understanding of how quality policies are implemented. But this is like an explorer mounting an expedition to an exotic land, not sure of what will be found there but trying to prepare based on guide books and scouting reports. The time and resources invested in these trips can be substantial, which means that they are not frequent endeavors and that reviews of one location are sometimes used as an indicator of the performance of other locations.

To be clear, we believe that the existing quality-assurance agencies have the capacity to conduct robust reviews on overseas activities. However, the variety of educational models, the rapid emergence of new foreign outposts, and the global scope of the activity threaten to overwhelm the expedition model. Quality assurance can’t just be here and there. It needs to be everywhere. And it needs to adapt to the on-the-ground conditions overseas.

One step would be for quality-assurance agencies to set up their own foreign outposts in countries (or regions) that host a substantial amount of international activity. If a nation’s universities see the benefit of being in a foreign region, then quality assurance should follow them. Rather than going to China for two weeks to review all the British university activity there, the United Kingdom’s Quality Assurance Agency could open up an office in Shanghai or Hong Kong and conduct regular reviews. Maybe the Middle States Commission on Higher Education could open similar offices in Singapore and Dubai, establishing a permanent presence for U.S. quality assurance at the major crossroads of international higher-education activity.

We see several potential benefits for quality-assurance groups in operating their own overseas offices. First, it allows quality reviews to be less of an expedition and more like the sort of visits that occur with main campuses back home. Written documentary evidence is important, but the focus is on seeing how the policies are applied in situ. Second, it emphasizes to the host country (and local students) that quality is taken seriously by the exporting nation, and that local social and political interests are taken into consideration. Being there, in other words, shows respect. Third, it may make it more likely that host countries will accept the quality assurance of home countries as equivalent to their own procedures. And home countries may recognize that host-country quality-assurance regimes can satisfy much of their requirements as well. Imagine a European Quality Assurance Register for higher education that is global in scope. Finally, being embedded overseas can help accreditors and others understand how local academic and cultural norms may vary from back home and adapt existing procedures accordingly.

As national borders become less important for the provision of education, they continue to be a significant feature of quality-assurance regimes around the world. Making quality assurance truly multinational means moving beyond the expedition model and creating structures that match the global entities that universities have become.