Compliance or Quality? American and British Approaches to the Accreditation of Higher Education Institutions

Article excerpt

The globalization of higher education has resulted in a number of British institutions applying for American accreditation. In 2002, the UK Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education admitted its first American member. All these institutions must therefore confront the need to satisfy two very different approaches to the assurance of quality and the maintenance of academic standards. This paper explores these two systems, and the very different philosophies that underpin them. Can these two approaches be reconciled? Can they be merged into one system embracing higher-education institutions in both countries?

The summer of 2004 witnessed a determined attempt by the United States Congress to probe the secretive world of accreditation in American higher education. Representative Howard P. McKeon (R-Calif.) used the opportunity provided by the tabling of legislation to renew the Higher Education Act to launch a series of Congressional hearings into accreditation-a rare event made rarer still by the ferocity of the ensuing attack on the accreditation industry. Congressman McKeon, who chairs the leading higher education sub-committee in the House of Representatives, demanded that in the furtherance of consumer power and choice, prospective students, and the parents who fund them, be given far more information about the quality of accredited universities and colleges.

At present, accrediting agencies' reports on institutions are for the most part confidential. Critics of this system want summaries of accreditors' findings to be published whenever an institution's status is under scrutiny-even when it is nothing more than a periodic and quite routine reaffirmation exercise. Sponsors of the bill to renew the Higher Education Act also want accreditors to be required to publish the names of those who carry out such inspections on their behalf.

These demands not only triggered a lively debate, they also provoked an attack on the entire system of higher education accreditation in the u.s.1 For some time, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni had been lobbying Congress to cut the link between accreditation and the ability to award federal financial aid. Jerry L. Martin, the Council's president, had told a Senate Committee in February 2004 that the link deserved to be broken because accreditation simply did not guarantee "a quality education." "There is massive evidence [he charged] for the fact that, under the current accrediting system...colleges have experienced runaway grade inflation... [and]...curricular disintegration."2

This attack was adamantly dismissed by (amongst others) Senators Hillary Clinton, a Democrat, and Republican Lamar Alexander (a former u.s. secretary of education). Both pointed to the alleged superiority of the American system of higher education and to the supposed institutional autonomy through which that alleged superiority was underpinned. But what was most striking about this debate, and about the House debate the following July, was the unwillingness of the accreditation establishment either to examine in depth the criticisms that had been made of the current u.s. accreditation model, or to consider any alternative accreditation model.

Background

The globalization of higher education has resulted in a number of British institutions applying for American regional accreditation, for example, the UK Open University, which in 2005 obtained accreditation from the Middle States Commission. These initiatives have been market-driven. By obtaining u.s. accreditation, these academies hope to attract a larger cohort of North American students, lured by the prospect of being able to pursue, in the UK, an education that will be fully recognized in the United States.

Such institutions are of course already fully 'accredited' in Great Britain. That is to say, they are recognized as legitimate institutions of higher education either by virtue of the possession of a Royal Charter (as with the Open University) or through the provisions of an Act of Parliament. …