Freedom and control clash

May 25, 2001

Will accreditation systems hamper the creation of a European higher education area? asks John Pratt

Accreditation was high on the agenda when European ministers of education met in Prague last week to discuss how to follow up the Bologna Declaration.

The Bologna intention to create a European higher education area implies that there will be a "European dimension" to quality assurance and certification arrangements. Different countries have different systems, and there is considerable public uncertainty about the nature and value of qualifications - sometimes within a single country. At the same time, there is concern about creating yet another level of supra-national bureaucracy regulating, constraining and prescribing what universities and colleges should do.

Many of these questions were discussed at a conference in Vienna last month based on a research project in the Economic and Social Research Council's programme on Future Governance: Lessons from Comparative Public Policy. The research is investigating the idea of "policy transfer" of an accreditation system, based on the old Council for National Academic Awards in Britain, to the new Fachhoch-schule sector in Austria. Case studies of different kinds of accreditation systems in Germany and Italy were also considered. The use of an "accreditation model" for the Fachhochschulen was a radical departure in Austria. As in Britain and many other countries, accreditation systems emerged first in the non-university sector to give national validity to courses in new institutions. Austria created its Fachhochschulrat (council) to validate vocationally oriented courses in its new sector of independent, vocationally oriented institutions in 1993. It broke with the tradition of centralised state regulation of state-owned universities and for the first time gave an expert - non-political - body power to take decisions in higher education independently of the ministry.

Since then, the Fachhochschule sector has been used as an example to promote major reform in the university sector. Two days after the Vienna conference, the newspaper Kurier described the universities as being "in the slipstream" of the Fachhochschulen. A third of entrants to higher education in Austria now go to Fachhochschulen that began recruiting only in 1994. Following this example, Austrian universities will soon become independent legal entities and the employers of their own staff, creating their own courses.

Yet, as Hans Pechar, from the Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies in Vienna, says, giving institutions autonomy and promoting curricular diversity increases the need for accreditation mechanisms. This is one of the problems of the Bologna Declaration. It, too, supports institutional autonomy. One question is whether institutional and curricular diversity can be compatible with Bologna's aim of "convergence".

The complexity of the problem was aptly illustrated by different accreditation arrangements in other countries. One aim of the conference was to consider whether nations can learn from each other. Ed Page, director of the ESRC Future Governance programme, has noted that there are different ways of doing this. The Austrian example had some elements of "rational shopping" with policy-makers consciously choosing between different approaches.

One model rejected by Austria, surprisingly, was that of its neighbour Germany. Austria wanted something different. When the conference heard of the new accreditation arrangements emerging in Germany since Bologna, one could see why. Claudius Gellert from Munich described the creation of regional and subject-based accreditation agencies, which in turn have to be accredited by a national agency. But he also noted that simply adopting new arrangements cannot be done without a challenge to the fundamental values of the higher education system. Accreditation in Germany is part of its change to the Bologna system of bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees, which emerged from the Anglo-Saxon tradition and may be incompatible with the Humboldtian model of much of continental Europe. Italy, too, though somewhat belatedly, according to Stefano Boffo from La Sapienza University in Rome, is replacing a complex system of state control of university curricula with an accreditation system.

A multiplicity of accreditation bodies is emerging across Europe and beyond. Associations of institutions, of the professions, of subject areas, of governments and even of accreditation agencies themselves are all getting in on the act. Elsa Hackl, one of the key policy-makers in the Austrian Fachhochschule policy who opened the conference, even claimed that accreditation has become a means to compensate for the diminishing role of the state in higher education. But whatever its function, there is an obvious danger of accrediting higher education to death.

Dirk van Damme, from the University of Ghent, warns that all this activity could be pointless. He recalled the little-noticed discussion on higher education at the World Trade Organisation meeting in Seattle. If higher education is regarded as a "service", as the United States has proposed, then all the regulatory mechanisms could be deemed illegal in the name of the free market. It is difficult to see what higher education has to fear more: death by accreditation or the death of accreditation.

John Pratt is professor in the Centre for Institutional Studies at the University of East London and director of the ESRC project on the Austrian accreditation model. Papers from the Vienna Conference can be found at http:///www.iff.ac.at/hofo/a&cp_conference_2001

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