US watchdogs face 'crisis' in post-truth age

Increased scrutiny of US sector and distrust of academics puts traditional quality assurance models in question

May 10, 2017
dogs keep watch
Source: Getty
All bark, no bite: many accreditors had recently faced criticisms as ‘watchdogs that do not have teeth’

America’s university accreditors are facing a “crisis of confidence” as politicians question whether their light-touch regulation is sufficient to safeguard massive public investment in higher education, a top watchdog chief has admitted.

Judith Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), which recognises 85 independent accreditation bodies operating in the US, told the Quality Assurance Agency’s annual conference at the University of Nottingham on 9 May that accreditors had been “subject to great deal of criticism” as legislators asked “very public and not very polite questions about how higher education is serving our country”.

“Education is a $500 billion-a-year sector and more than $200 billion comes from government [so] federal government has taken a great deal of interest in what we do,” Dr Eaton told delegates at the QAA conference.

“We find ourselves much more responsive to what federal government wants,” she added.

Higher education regulators, which are recognised by CHEA but outside government interference, now faced far more scrutiny from elected politicians, Dr Eaton said. Many had questioned whether the accreditation model still worked given the high dropout rates and poor graduate debt repayment levels among some institutions, particular for-profit operators, which were given approval by regulators, she said.

“We are having a bit of a crisis of confidence now,” said Dr Eaton, adding that “accreditation was [seen as] a reliable authority and was not questioned – [but] its status is being questioned strenuously now”.

The “world of post-truth, fake news and alternative facts” had also made it “difficult” for expert communities to function as arbiters of quality, both in higher education and outside it, Dr Eaton added.

With trust in traditional accreditation eroded, US states, local chambers of commerce and other organisations are threatening to set themselves up as regulators, Dr Eaton added.

“We are at a tipping point when we will see more actors in the accreditation space,” she said.

At the same time, some well-established educational providers had also criticised accreditors for imposing excessive bureaucracy on well-run institutions. Last week one of America’s top journalism schools, Medill, based at Northwestern University, opted not to renew its association with a national journalism accreditation council, saying the review process was “superficial, extremely time-consuming and doesn’t lead us to a goal of significant improvement”.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, Dr Eaton explained that many accreditors had recently faced criticisms as “watchdogs that do not have teeth” and that the process of “peer review was too cosy and too much of club".

However, the criticisms ignored the fact that accreditation – which seeks to guarantee minimum standards via light-touch checks on processes, while encouraging improvement – was “invented to do a particular kind of thing”.

“Accreditation is about aspiration and improvement – it’s not about saying ‘you are the bad guy’,” she said.

Despite promises by the new Republican administration under US president Donald Trump to roll back regulation, Dr Eaton said she had yet to see any evidence this is happening.

“The Obama administration was very generous to higher education, but we reached a tipping point where there was so much money in the system that it drove Congress to take a look at what was happening,” she explained.

“Republicans have long talked about regulatory relief, but they have moved their position substantially – what they consider as ‘less regulation’ will still be much more than existed 10 years ago,” she added.

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