US watchdogs, show more teeth or face fed pound

Obama’s State of the Union address draws line in sand, QAA conference hears

March 21, 2013

Source: Spirit of America/Shutterstock.com

Barack Obama’s call for an “alternative system of accreditation” for higher education bodies is likely to lead to a crackdown on regulators that are not enforcing the highest standards, a US accreditation chief has said.

Judith Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (Chea), said that the president’s State of the Union address last month had challenged the US’ accreditation community to prove the worth of the current set-up, as well as “enhance rigour” at tertiary institutions.

Unlike the UK’s single higher education watchdog, the Quality Assurance Agency, the US has 85 independent accreditation bodies, all overseen by Chea, that verify standards in universities and colleges through peer review.

Speaking at the QAA’s annual conference in Edinburgh on 12 March, Dr Eaton said that Mr Obama’s address appeared to indicate that “the federal government has moved into the accreditation business”.

His view had shifted from “fix those [accreditation] boards that are out there to perhaps we need [one] run by government”, she said.

“The Obama administration has been phenomenally generous to higher education and they are now saying we want more of a say.

“We do not like that, but we are going to have to do more to make sure we make our case heard.”

As her organisation was the “gateway” for universities seeking to access federal loans, Dr Eaton said, it may need to get tough on boards that do not insist on the highest standards - a response to Mr Obama’s call for higher education institutions to cut dropout rates, improve quality and deliver better value for money for taxpayers.

“It is not enough for an accreditation board to be [deemed] OK - it has to be outstanding,” she said.

“There are accreditors that currently accredit when not all standards of the accreditor are met” - a situation that may no longer be acceptable, she said.

“We often give institutions time to fix things, but perhaps we are giving them too much time.”

jack.grove@tsleducation.com

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