US universities urged to join global quality debate

Colleges warned their declines in foreign students could worsen if they do not pay more attention to global quality deliberations

February 1, 2019
Quality control

US universities are not taking seriously enough the need for global coordination of quality standards at a time of growing cross-border migrations of students and campuses, accreditation leaders have warned.

After a decade of strong growth in foreign student enrolment that helped to cushion budgets at colleges across the US, the numbers have reversed in the past couple of years, with experts blaming increasing international competition and anti-immigrant Trump administration policies.

But at the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) conference in Washington, both domestic and international participants pointed to a less visible problem that could worsen the decline and prolong other troubles facing US colleges: isolationist US attitudes toward quality control in higher education.

“These attitudes are problems, and losses of opportunities,” Dr Esther Barazzone, a former president of Chatham University in Pittsburgh, told a session organised by CHEA, which represents 60 accreditors and 3,000 colleges.

Data presented at the conference showed that 32 countries exported higher education services to 75 other countries in 2016. In that environment, said Douglas Blackstock, chief executive of the UK’s Quality Assurance Agency, there are extensive efforts to share and coordinate quality assurance processes.

“You’re not engaged in this activity,” Mr Blackstock declared to his US counterparts during Dr Barazzone’s session. “And I would appeal to you to think about that.”

Accreditation is a process by which outside parties evaluate the quality of individual colleges, to guide institutional self-improvement and to give government agencies a qualifying standard for taxpayer-financed student aid.

Without a global approach, however, US accreditors and universities are missing out on ideas for making the accreditation process work better, and for giving overseas students and colleges confidence working with US partners, Mr Blackstock said.

The US absence from global deliberations on accreditation, Dr Barazzone said, could reflect US universities and accreditors feeling overwhelmed by the number of challenges they face at home. Much of the conference agenda focused on Trump administration efforts to revise accreditation-related rules in such areas as credit-hour minimums and teacher-student interactions.

But US detachment from global efforts at coordinating accreditation approaches is more longstanding than the current administration, suggesting an enduring and outdated attitude that US college quality already represents the standard to which non-US institutions aspire, Dr Barazzone said.

Dr Barazzone pleaded somewhat guilty herself. She served as rapporteur for a small international accreditation conference in Turkey last September and said that it was eye-opening. Despite her years of leading Chatham University to multiple awards for international activities, she said, the Istanbul gathering taught her that she did not “have a sense of what is happening outside the US, particularly in the world of quality assurance and accreditation”.

That can be costly, Mr  Blackstock said after the event. Having listened at the conference to tales of US accreditors repeatedly failing to keep up with growing rates of financial-related college closures that suddenly threw thousands of students out of class, he pointed out new policies in the UK and Australia that try to devote proportionately greater accreditor attention to the institutions that need it most.

“They may not suit the US,” he said of the policy changes in those two places. “But at least have a look at what’s happening in other countries, to see if the US can learn from it.”

US colleges also need to build and maintain the trust of overseas accrediting powers if they want to keep the benefits of tuition from foreign students, and of their operations in overseas locations, Mr Blackstock said.

On a fundamental level, Mr Blackstock said, it never seems wise to let others make important policies in your absence. “If you don’t help shape that,” he said, “you may find that you get reforms that you don't like.”

Representatives from about 30 countries attended the CHEA conference. For the past several years, it has been followed immediately by a session of the CHEA International Quality Group that focuses on global issues. “Most of the American delegates won’t stay for it,” Mr Blackstock said.

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