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Accreditation of environmental degree programs raises concerns

Some faculty wary of ECO Canada initiative, while others welcome the move.

By ROSLYN DAKIN | NOV 07 2012
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A Lakehead University environmental studies program was one of the first of its kind to become accredited by the non-profit agency ECO Canada. Photo: Lakehead University.

Annie booth teaches a course on First Nations resource management at the University of Northern British Columbia, but she remembers how difficult it was 17 years ago to get that course integrated into UNBC’s forestry program. According to Dr. Booth, the accreditation board at the time did not see it as something that should be included in the curriculum for a professional forestry degree.

That is one of the reasons why Dr. Booth is wary of a recent move towards accreditation in environmental degree programs in Canada. She worries that accreditation might constrain the ability of these trans-disciplinary programs to respond to a rapidly changing society. While societal goals change quickly, she said, accrediting bodies may not.

The body in question is Environmental Careers Organization Canada, a non-profit organization that was formed in 1992 as part of a federal government initiative to bring industry and educational stakeholders together on labour issues. Since 2008, ECO Canada has offered accreditation to environmental science degree programs, a role that the group took on at the request of university and college educators in the Canadian University Environmental Science Network and Canadian College Environmental Network.

This year, ECO Canada began accrediting liberal arts-based degrees in environmental studies as well, starting with the King’s University College in Edmonton and Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario. However, after an ECO Canada presentation at a meeting of the chairs of environmental studies programs in May, Dr. Booth, who is curriculum chair of UNBC’s environmental studies BA program, became concerned with what she saw as an increasingly aggressive push for an unnecessary and unwanted service. With 23 of her colleagues, she signed a letter calling for an end to ECO Canada accreditation. The letter appeared in the September issue of the CAUT Bulletin, published by the Canadian Association of University Teachers.

Besides citing concerns about flexibility, the letter notes that ECO Canada charges substantial fees – around $7,000 for initial accreditation plus an annual maintenance fee of $1,000 per accredited program – for a process that the opponents believe needlessly duplicates regular university program reviews without any added benefit.

However, not all the heads of environmental studies programs agree with this view. John Wood, dean of natural sciences at King’s University College, sees several benefits of accreditation. He said the agency helps his institution work with alumni on career transition and noted that accredited degree holders can achieve ECO Canada’s environmental professional certification in four years instead of five. As well, “It gives you profile as a program, and visibility,” said Dr. Wood. He said it made sense to have both the environmental studies and environmental science programs accredited, since at King’s they are highly integrated with many shared courses.

Stephen Bocking at Trent University contends that the greatest benefit to accreditation is that it lends credence to an emerging field in the eyes of employers. “I don’t think there’s necessarily a full awareness in the environmental sector of the distinct advantages that students get from an interdisciplinary environmental program,” he said. As chair of environmental and resource studies, Dr. Bocking was involved when Trent achieved ECO Canada accreditation for its environmental science program in 2009, and he said Trent will pursue accreditation for the environmental studies degrees as well.

But Brian Cumming, director of the school of environmental studies at Queen’s University, countered that accreditation makes little sense for non-vocational humanities degrees, where programs can and should vary widely. “It’s good that not everyone is the same,” he said. “It offers choices.” A signatory to the CAUT Bulletin letter, Dr. Cumming also questioned whether the employability advantage for graduates of ECO Canada-accredited programs is real, since, he said, hiring decisions aren’t based on whether someone has an ECO Canada certified degree.

UNBC’s Dr. Booth added that she has reservations about the fact that ECO Canada receives its funding from industry and government sources. “We think it’s an attempt to gain control over how we teach people in environmental studies and environmental science programs that meets industry and government ends,” she said.

Grant Trump, chief executive of ECO Canada, stressed that accreditation is managed by an autonomous arm of ECO Canada, the Canadian Environmental Accreditation Commission, comprised of representatives from academia as well as industry. Moreover, ECO Canada’s curriculum guidelines were developed and reviewed by academic program heads from several institutions.

Trent’s Dr. Bocking was one of those, and he said the CAUT Bulletin letter does not give an accurate picture of how flexible the criteria are, since they are based on broad capabilities and not a list of specific courses. “It’s really designed to work for the benefit of environmental science and studies programs and not to constrain or restrict them in some way,” he said.

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