Communicating Quality Part 7

With the launch of the Educational Quality Framework (EQF) and associated policies and procedures, we have been highlighting an aspect of the EQF in more detail. This month we look at Professional Accreditation.

A fascinating nexus exists between higher education on the one hand and industry/ professional standards and practice on the other. Across the sector, around 100 accrediting agencies operate on behalf of professions to ensure (and assure) that what is being taught within universities meets the needs of the professions they represent. With varying degrees of prescription ranging from legal requirement to recommended practice, accrediting bodies develop competencies and standards against which courses, topics, assessment methods, learning outcomes, governance, teaching, facilities and graduate outcomes may be mapped. Perhaps surprisingly (if not ironically), while accrediting bodies seek to monitor, regulate and assure higher education courses, they themselves operate in a largely unregulated space. Standards, competencies and criteria might be devised in consultation between practitioners and academics but there is little consistency between how agencies themselves operate. Some purport to a ‘light touch’ approach to accreditation as favoured by TEQSA, while others go in ‘boots and all’ making what can be regarded as excessive demands on universities.

There has long been debate about the ‘over-reach’ of accrediting bodies, and anyone who has participated in the process would have stories of the burdensome load it can generate. The extent to which professional accreditation impacts the sector was investigated in a recent Department of Education and Training (DET) commissioned report which found that, while “Most agencies are in compliance with the general principles for good accreditation practice” (Phillips, 2017) the power dynamic between agency and institution can present challenges. Professional accreditation has a peculiar economy. Where accreditation is a requirement for professional registration and practice, institutions are essentially beholden to the accrediting agencies. A worst-case scenario for any university would be to graduate students who could not then practice in their chosen field because of lack of course professional accreditation. This ‘inelastic demand’ exposes the potential for manipulation, and accrediting agencies can – and often do – charge exorbitant fees to conduct accreditation. The DET report uncovered examples such as “where the accrediting body essentially charges two sets of accreditation fees to accredit two Bachelor degrees, the only difference between the degrees being the time of year of student intake – at the beginning of the year or at mid-year.” (Phillips, 2017). With accreditation fees often in the tens of thousands, there is little wonder that “Accreditation is considered by many academics to be one of the most expensive and least value‐added processes that universities are required to engage in.” (Hockfield Malandra, 2008).

At the other end of the spectrum, professional bodies themselves rely on institutions to validate their presence. Where accreditation of a course supports industry recognition but is not a requirement for professional practice (referred to at Flinders as Professional Recognition), accrediting bodies need to convince course providers that their particular stamp of accreditation will attract students and ultimately add value to the institution. As the DET report states: “The success of newly formed accreditation agencies depends on their capacity to convince providers that their endorsement of a program will add to the attraction of students. It is, in effect a market.” (Phillips, 2017). Institutions need to make the call on whether accreditation with a particular agency is worth the time and effort required. In some instances, whether a course is accredited can have enormous flow-on effect in terms of student enrolments, particularly in the competitive international market. It can aid student mobility and offers a form of certification that the course meets – and is monitored to continue meeting – the expectations of the profession.

Professional accreditation can represent both a summative stamp of approval and a continual prompt for improvement. Ultimately, “if conducted in an appropriate and transparent manner, accreditation is a beneficial process well worth the effort expended.” (Phillips, 2017).

What does the Educational Quality Framework (EQF) and associated policies and procedures have to say about professional accreditation?
Fundamentally, the Award Course Improvement and Accreditation Procedures that sit within the EQF respect the importance of the academic relationship to – and critical ownership of – the professional accreditation of their discipline. Many academics are intimately connected with professional associations and accrediting bodies, holding membership of boards and advisory roles. They may be former or current practitioners enmeshed in the occupational norms and nuances. As researchers and teachers in the discipline they are acutely attuned to changing standards and practice. It is this logic that underpins the procedural guidance for professional accreditation or recognition within the Award Course Improvement and Accreditation Procedures that:

a. Every course that is subject to professional accreditation or professional recognition will have an academic staff member nominated to lead professional accreditation/recognition activities.

b. The nominated academic lead is responsible for preparation of a professional accreditation or recognition submission for a course or courses requiring professional accreditation or recognition, with oversight of the Dean (Education).

This procedural guidance is not designed to add burden to academic workload and disrupt workplace equilibrium. There is no conspiracy at play to increase academic liability and decrease professional staff responsibility. The rationale behind the procedure is sound: no one is more suited to lead the professional accreditation or recognition of a course or courses within a discipline than the academics who teach, research, and practice in that discipline.

That is not to say that supports are not available. Recently, the Educational Quality Team in CILT established a Professional Accreditation website which is ever-growing, an updated schedule of accreditations, and a centralised repository for reports and documents on the University’s Content Manager records system. The Award Course Improvement and Accreditation Procedures also guide accreditation leaders to the Educational Quality Team for final quality assurance checking, editing and formatting, but ultimately the final, edited submission is developed within the College, endorsed at the College level and submitted to the accrediting agency under the remit of the Dean (Education). The Procedures recognise that professional accreditation and recognition is an academic activity requiring localised, academic oversight, not centralised management or enforcement. Anna Smith in the Educational Quality Team in CILT is a central ‘quality anchor’ in the process and can support College-based support staff and academic leads on the journey to accreditation, while recognising that the critical relationship between profession and discipline falls squarely within the academic domain.

Written by Anna Smith
Project Officer, Learning and Teaching – CILT

Hockfield Malandra, G. (2008). Accountability and learning assessment in the future of higher education. On the Horizon, 16(2), 57-71.

Phillips, K. P. A. (2017). Professional accreditation: Mapping the territory.

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