Measuring Quality in Higher Education Is a Tricky Proposition
Demand for higher education in the Arab region has never been greater. Students, families, governments and societies throughout the region all understand that higher education is the key to individual and national success in an interconnected, globalized economy.
There are thousands of academic institutions and programs seeking to meet this demand. However, higher education is not uniform in the Arab world, or globally. Rather, it is amazingly diverse. Academic providers range from tiny to gigantic, from narrowly specialized to broadly comprehensive, with publicly funded, private nonprofit and private for-profit structures and a variety of missions and values. Finding the right academic program in the right institution is important for every student. It is also difficult.
One reason it is difficult is that institutions and programs vary widely in quality. Part of the difficulty arises from the fact there are no generally accepted ways to measure quality in higher education. Even the smallest institutions are complex. Programs vary widely in approach, objectives and capacity. Institutions prize their autonomy, and institutional diversity promotes innovation and competition, increasing opportunities for students with differing interests, abilities and objectives.
The absence of standard indicators and the diversity of programs and institutions often mean that information about higher education is obscure, limited and inaccessible. This has allowed numerous ranking systems to flourish. These systems purport to provide clear perspectives on different institutions and programs and their relative merits. They look objective and scientific, but they are not. All are methodologically unsound and provide inadequate information. A false objectivity gives the ranking systems outsized and unjustifiable influence in the minds of students, parents and governments alike, while often perversely skewing an institution’s priorities as it seeks to climb in the rankings for purposes of reputation and branding.
A different approach to assessing quality and providing information is provided by the various types of accreditation.
Sometimes done by governments, other times by nongovernmental bodies, accreditation generally proposes a set of standards or criteria that an institution or program must meet, at least minimally, through a process of external review and assessment. Al-Fanar Media recently published a helpful listing of more than 450 programs and institutions in the region that have some form of international accreditation. However, it is important to understand what these forms of accreditation mean.
There are two basic forms of accreditation—programmatic, or specialized, accreditation and institutional accreditation. The former is much more common in the Arab world and addresses only specific academic programs.
While many countries have national forms of accreditation, international accreditation is growing and generally meets higher quality standards, thus enhancing opportunities for mobility in employment. Business programs, for example, are accredited by any of several international accreditation organizations with acronymic names like AACSB, AMBA or EQUIS. Possessing a degree from a program accredited in this manner meets instant recognition from employers, and expands opportunities and locations for graduates. A student seeking a professional career in a specific field usually does well to seek enrollment in a program accredited in that field.
However, academic programs do not exist in a vacuum. Almost all are in some kind of academic institution. Program accreditation tells one little about the larger institution in which a program is located. Not only are institutions complicated and varied, but also they include a range of programs, as well as the services and infrastructure needed to support them.
The most widely recognized institutional accreditors are in the United States. These voluntary, nonprofit organizations have great weight in that nation in part because most forms of government funding for student financial aid and academic research require institutional accreditation as a condition for access to resources. While some of the U.S. organizations accredit a limited number of academic institutions outside the United States, their primary focus is domestic.
Some nations in the Arab region, including the United Arab Emirates and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, have their own forms of institutional accreditation and others are actively seeking to develop the means for doing so.
Significantly, institutional accreditation, whatever its specific locale, form and criteria, is not about academic excellence. Rather, the nature of institutional accreditation is the meeting of a threshold—the minimum standards or criteria for assessment. The threshold model is common because it is the only way to accommodate the diversity of academic institutions in any nation or group.
Some see American higher education as a leading global standard and seek to emulate it, but the fact is the quality of academic institutions and programs in the United States also varies widely. The threshold or minimalist approach of the U.S. accreditors means that the weakest accredited institution can rightfully state that they have exactly the same accreditation as Harvard or Stanford. This absurdity shows that threshold accreditation is meaningless in terms of excellence.
Accreditation in its different forms is, however, a useful form of validation, as well as a way of separating the better programs and institutions from those that are unaccredited. But students should look more closely at any program or institution in which they may be interested. Accreditation, like ranking systems, is never completely objective and never tells the entire story of a program or institution. Accreditation can be a form of consumer protection, but it does not indicate whether a particular program or institution is right for an individual.
Within the Arab world, governments and nongovernmental bodies alike strive to provide good information, but, at the end of the day it is up to students and their parents to look closely at all possible aspects of academic offerings and institutions, recognizing that information is never complete or readily accessible.
Higher education is perhaps the most important investment most people will make. Simply looking at rankings or examining only accreditation credentials are inadequate for preparing for the choices involved in this investment.
Chester Haskell, a partner in the Edu-Alliance Group, is a higher-education consultant working with universities in several countries including the United States, Mexico, Holland, Spain and Brazil. He has many years’ experience in university leadership in the United States, having served in senior positions over 13 years at Harvard University and as a college president in California for more than a decade. He also is a member of the Board of Trustees of Al Ghurair University in Dubai.