Regain the right to self-regulate

January 3, 2003

When it comes to quality assurance, Britain could learn a lot from the US, argues Geoffrey Alderman

American InterContinental University last year underwent its decennial "reaffirmation of accreditation". AIU has campuses in four US states, as well as London and Dubai. Its headquarters campus is in Atlanta, Georgia, and so its "regional" accrediting body - the commission on colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools - is also based there.

The AIU reaffirmation was carried out against the benchmark of Sacs "criteria for accreditation". Each campus produced a voluminous "self-study" document, and a Sacs team visited each campus. After the initial campus-by-campus visit, Sacs produced a list of issues for clarification. Another Sacs team made a further visit to Atlanta to review the additional information provided.

A recommendation was then made to the commission on colleges, which released its verdict at the Sacs annual conference in San Antonio, Texas, in December. One by one, delegations from the hundred or so Sacs-accredited institutions up for reaffirmation were called in to hear the verdict. As the delegations emerged, there were hugs, smiles, tears of joy and, in some cases, grim faces. The next day, the verdicts were announced publicly for endorsement by the entire conference.

Sounds awesome, doesn't it? But the process is a case study in true self-regulation. Sacs is one of six officially recognised regional associations that give general (as distinct from professional) accreditation to degree-awarding institutions in the US. By "officially recognised", I mean those recognised by the US Department of Education. The federal government plays no part in the quality assurance of higher education institutions. Individual states grant licences (the legal authority to operate), but quality assurance is a matter for each institution.

What is Sacs? Neither more nor less than the sum total of the universities and colleges that comprise its membership. It is governed by a network of committees, voted into office by members. Sacs members likewise vote on the criteria for accreditation.

Despite the very large sums of money put into the higher education system in the US by the states and the federal government, Sacs is truly autonomous. Its method of operating is by peer review. It is not afraid of taking tough decisions. In San Antonio, two colleges had their accreditation terminated, while a number of others were put on warning or probation or had these sanctions renewed. The names are on the Sacs website, together with the reasons in each case.

This is not to say that Sacs is a perfect example. It isn't and it knows it. Its current approach is too preoccupied with bureaucratic compliance. Next year it will change its criteria to take a more outcomes-focused approach. But Sacs will remain an object lesson in what self-regulation in higher education really means.

This concept is barely understood by university vice-chancellors in Britain. When the scandal of Thames Valley University broke in 1998, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals ought to have taken steps to suspend it from membership. Universities found to have mis-sold their overseas franchises should have been put on warning or on probation. In one or two cases, the power to award degrees should have been removed.

Instead, those in charge of British higher education institutions have surrendered the right to self-regulation. They simply lack the guts and ability to operate such a system.

Yes, the US process is awesome but it has its advantages. In San Antonio, Sacs agreed to grant reaffirmation of accreditation to AIU for a further ten years, without sanction. This does not mean that we are "off the hook". It means that for the next nine or so years we can concentrate on educating students and developing new programmes without worrying about the quality inspectorate breathing down our necks.

Geoffrey Alderman, vice-president of American InterContinental University, London, writes in a personal capacity. For details visit www.sacs.org

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