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Seeking Global Quality Control For Universities

This article first ran in The Chronicle of Higher Education and appears here under an agreement with The Chronicle.

WASHINGTON—As more students cross borders to study and as universities become increasingly international in scope, should there be a single, global set of standards to ensure quality and comparability?

Even as experts here for a meeting of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation’s International Quality Group discussed whether there’s a need for a worldwide accrediting process, and if such a system was feasible, they also had to confront a reality: In large measure, that work may already have been ceded to global higher-education rankers.

“To what extent are rankings becoming a de facto quality-assurance system?” asked Peter J. Wells, a higher-education consultant who led a session on global rankings at the daylong conference, which drew accreditors and higher-education professionals from around the world.

Interest in both global rankings and international quality-assurance standards is, in many ways, driven by a similar impulse—to be able to compare universities and higher-education systems across countries.

In making the case for international standards, Anthony McClaran, chief executive of Britain’s Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, noted that as more students study overseas or on a satellite campus of a foreign university, they are seeking practical information about the quality of their education and how their degree would compare to credentials issued by other institutions, both in their home country and worldwide.  “There’s bottom-up pressure” for such measures, he said.

Global standards also have institutional benefits, Mr. McClaran said, because they allow universities to set performance benchmarks that foster comparison with peers around the world. That could help institutions make smarter decisions, such as finding the best fit in an international partner.

For developing countries, such standards could serve as a road map for building up their higher-education systems.

‘A Mismatch’?

But other observers argued that it’s the very growth and globalization of higher education that make this the wrong time to impose a single standard of quality around the world. “Do we have a mismatch between a desire for a single model of excellence and greater diversification of students and institutions?” asked Patti McGill Peterson, presidential adviser for global initiatives at the American Council on Education.

Andrée Sursock, senior adviser to the European University Association, raised a practical concern: “I don’t know who would have the legitimacy to come up with a set of standards internationally.” Drafting common measures of quality is difficult enough within a single institution or a country, she said, but it could be next to impossible to achieve across national borders and still ensure that universities have a say. Without that buy-in, such standards could be “seen by institutional actors as an imposition.”

Ms. Sursock added that it could be difficult to craft one set of standards that fit institutions and education systems of varying qualities and stages of development. Set standards too low and they’re “meaningless,” she said. Too high, and they could be “harmful” to fledgling institutions.

However, María José Lemaitre, executive director of Interuniversity Development Center, in Chile, said it was possible to chart a middle ground. Ms. Lemaitre knows from experience—she was part of an effort among six South American countries to devise a common set of standards for higher-education quality. The standards required significant quality improvements for several of the countries. Half of them, she noted, did not even have their own accreditors when the group began work, in 1998.

Important to the success of the multicountry effort, Ms. Lemaitre said, was that organizers didn’t start with broad measures. Rather, they began by enlisting subject-matter experts to agree on core competencies in fields including engineering, agronomy, and medicine. “Everyone knows what a medical doctor has to know,” she said. “It’s concrete.”

And at the working group’s first meeting, the drafters quickly agreed they would not try to create a supranational accrediting agency but instead would work through individual national quality-assurance bodies to carry out the common standards.

Still, Ms. Lemaitre remained skeptical that an effort to establish a single set of standards could work on a global level. Working in a smaller geographic region, the working group’s participants had greater commonality in educational systems and deeper cultural and economic ties, she said.

‘Simple and Sexy’

But is such a discussion academic? After all, in the decade since the first global rankings appeared, they have increasingly come to be relied upon—by students and families, by national governments, by universities themselves—as arbiters of quality.

By and large, it’s not educators who set the metrics for quality in global rankings, noted Ellen Hazelkorn, director of research and enterprise at the Dublin Institute of Technology. (One, the Academic Ranking of World Universities, was started by China’s Shanghai Jiao Tong University.) “The academy has lost control of defining quality,” said Ms. Hazelkorn, a rankings expert and a Chronicle blogger.

Jamil Salmi, a higher-education expert formerly with the World Bank, said accreditors are partly responsible. Accreditation, he said, is a “closed world” in which stakeholders—let alone students and government officials—often do not understand the process. “Rankings are simple and sexy,” he said. “It’s one number.”

Of course, if setting a single measure of quality is the goal, it should be noted that there are multiple global higher-education rankings, including three major rankings of research universities and smaller, more specialized rankings. (“If you’re looking for a ranking of European, vegan-friendly campuses, there probably is one,” joked Mr. Wells, the moderator of the rankings panel.)

Mr. Salmi said the substitution of rankings for quality assurance was misplaced. Rankings merely tell universities how well they’re doing compared with peers, not how to do better. Still, he said, rankings have gained traction in the absence of common global accrediting standards.

“We have to accept the fact,” he said, “that rankers appeared because of a thirst for more information, for more transparency that the accreditation process is not providing.”

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